Jan 6, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District, January 5, 2020
Happy New Year! I was not supposed to be in the pulpit with you this morning. But plans change, people get sick, and I find myself with you today on the first Sunday of a new year and a new decade. It is good to be with you. It is good to be with even though the news at the opening of this, what will perhaps be the most important decade in human history, is bitter and harsh. It is good to be with you precisely because it is when the news of the world is bitter and harsh that we need religious community the most.
The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a United States military drone strike on sovereign Iraqi soil has pushed the Middle East into crisis. Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi military leader whose political party controls almost fifty seats in the Iraqi Parliament. These illegal acts of war violate both international law and the United States War Powers Act. They may lead to war between the United States and Iran. They have already led to further destabilization of the Middle East. Hundreds of people will almost certainly be killed because of the decision of the President of the United States to authorize Soleimani’s illegal political assassination. Thousands or tens of thousands or possibly even hundreds of thousands of people will die horrible violent deaths if this country goes to war with Iran.
I cannot help but wonder about the timing of the President’s decision to have Soleimani killed. He will soon be on trial in the Senate. The House has passed two articles of impeachment and he could, theoretically, be removed from office. Of course, there is every sign that his allies in the Senate will prevent witnesses from being called or from a serious trial taking place. The Senate Majority Leader even claims that he is coordinating the trial with the White House in order to facilitate a speedy acquittal. The position of the President’s Senatorial allies is clearly concerning. In his year-end report Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., warned “we have come to take democracy for granted.” Roberts will oversee the trial in the Senate. It appears that the Senate Majority Leader’s position has him worried about his ability “to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”
Drawing the United States military into a conflict abroad will almost certainly make it more difficult to have an honest debate and trial on the House’s articles of impeachment. There will be calls for national unity. For the many, the President will be transformed from a divisive figure to a unifying head of state. It will be harder to criticize him. War dissenters and pacifists will be castigated for being unpatriotic. There might even be calls to delay the President’s trial. This country’s liberal democracy may move closer to a defining crisis.
Over a hundred years ago, as the United States entered World War I, the writer Randolph Bourne warned that war is the health of the state. He wrote, “The moment war is declared... the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy... with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, [and] revives all his military memories and symbols... Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.” When war is the health of the state it is challenging to be a critic of either the President or the actions he directs the military to take. It is no wonder then that the current President is not the only one to authorize dramatic violent action during the impeachment process. President Clinton did the same thing in December of 1998 when he launched air strikes in Iraq as the House stood poised to impeach him.
Over a hundred years ago the Unitarian minister, pacifist, and first friend in the United States of Mahatma Gandhi, John Haynes Holmes stood before his congregation in New York City and told them, in the idiom of early twentieth-century Unitarianism: “War is an open and utter violation of Christianity. If war is right, then Christianity is wrong, false, a lie. If Christianity is right, then war is wrong, false, a lie...”
Today, I believe that the same thing can be said in twenty-first century words. Unitarian Universalism upholds the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Not some people. Not only citizens and residents of the United States. All people. Speaking only for myself, I can rephrase Holmes words: War with Iran is an open and violation of Unitarian Universalist values. If such a war is right, then Unitarian Universalism is wrong, false, a lie. If Unitarian Universalism is right, then such a war is wrong, false, a lie...”
You may have other views. We affirm the right of conscience and the search for truth as central to our tradition. These are mine and they mean that I will never pray nor preach for victory through arms or pretend that the people of Iran are any less human, any less worthy of my love or the love of the divine, than any of you.
And so, this morning, I find myself gravely concerned for the future of this country and this world. I find myself gravely concerned because not only do the President’s military actions represent a political crisis and a crisis in democracy, they are a distraction from what must be the central focus of the next decade: addressing the climate emergency.
The next ten years or so will determine whether or not humanity chooses to address the climate crisis. What we do now will impact the lives of not only our children and our grandchildren but the lives of those thousands of years from now--if there are humans thousands of years from now. At such a moment in humanity history, I find myself often reflecting upon the words of James Baldwin in the closing passage of his magnificent essay “The Fire Next Time.” Baldwin’s essay was written during the civil rights movement, that historic movement to overturn Jim Crow and defeat white supremacy. He saw that movement for racial justice as something that would determine the future of country--whether it would be a liberal democracy or a white supremacist apartheid state. Baldwin wrote: “And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we--and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others--do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. We are on the precipice because we, as a country, have been unable to overcome white supremacy. The current President is a white supremacist populist and many of his supporters have made it clear that their highest loyalty is to the maintenance of a white supremacist racial order and not liberal democracy.
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. Literally and figuratively, while the world is distracted by the threat of war Australia is literally burning. Figuratively, because the racial conflagration that has raged since Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent is threatening, once again, to consume the country.
The fire next time, in worship we have been focusing on the spiritual and religious tools that are necessary to live through such times of crisis. Today, and for the month of January, we will be focusing on what I believe is one of the most important of these tools: the cultivation of friendships. The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the cultivation of friendships was a crucial tool for those who survived the brutalities of totalitarianism. The creation and sustaining of friendship in such times is a sign that “a bit of humanness in a world become inhuman had been achieved.” And in such hours of crises as the ones we now face maintaining our own humanness and recognizing it in others is one of our crucial tasks. It is difficult to kill others whom we recognize as humans. Killing, especially on a mass scale, often requires the abstraction of human being into a categorical other: the human being who is a friend, a lover, a parent, a child, a sibling, or a neighbor becomes the Jew, the migrant, the black person, the indigenous person, the queer person, or the Iranian.
And so, now let us turn to friendship and consider the alchemical power it provides to make us human to each other.
The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, “What was the name of my best friend?” is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.
Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he claimed, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members.” He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community 'the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.'”
Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. And whose friendships sustained them through the struggle for the abolition of slavery and their work for the liberation of women. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.
Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” Margaret Fuller drowned at sea at the age of forty. Her tragic death prompted Emerson to write, “I have lost my audience.” Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, “more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles...” Of him she wrote, “that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind.” Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.
The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, “...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.”
Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or hustling through mazing, cold, Boston streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.
Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called “the great family of all souls.” If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.
Again, Emerson, “We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables.” Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, “the solidest thing we know.” Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.
When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were often similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, “I come to this congregation because I love the community.”
“That's it?,” my internal dialogue would run. “You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure a minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!”
Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, “Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,” but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. A few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.
Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. When there are crises in the world, or crises in our lives, a religious community like this one can be a place to discover that are not alone in our struggles. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making, and breaking isolation, is are pretty powerful common centers.
Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.
It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.
Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. “From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey,” said one. “Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart,” said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.
The virtues might be understood as those qualities that we cultivate which are praiseworthy. They are qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them. That is one reason why as we have been considering the spiritual and religious tools we need in this era of crisis we have speaking of the virtues in worship.
Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.
Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, “The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.
But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.
Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, “I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else.”
We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. A friend visits. I take the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I have never done before but will certainly do again. We delight in its silky sweet eggy texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. A friend calls and inspires me in my commitment to work toward justice. He reminds me that we can only build the good society together. We can only do it by imaging the possibility of friendship between all the world’s peoples.
How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, “What was the name of my best friend?” was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.
I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.
Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, “Hello, I would like to get to know you.” Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, “I have my greatest gift to give you, my self.” Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights. Doing so will help us to recognize the possibility of friendship, the community humanity among, inherent in all peoples. Doing so will equip us to thrive in an era of crisis and remember the promise of our faith tradition: someday, somehow, we will remember that we are all members of the great family of all souls and, so united, we shall overcome war and hatred to build the beloved community.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Aug 13, 2019
My parents have been friends with the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova since shortly after my father first started teaching in the United Kingdom. They met her when she was a young single mother living in exile. It was the early 1980s and she was a political dissident who had fled the Communist East for the relative freedom of the West. While she was not a fan of the Marxist-Leninist Stalinist regime in her own country, she was no advocate for Thatcher’s Britain either. She spent most of her time making photographs of working-class people who were on the edge of British society and threatened by neoliberalism.
Her most famous photography from the 1970s and 1980s is her series on the performers, hustlers, street people, and vendors who made up the community of Spitalfields Market. Her photography of them earned her praise from, and friendship with, John Berger. It also provided an important document, an artifact of historical memory, that attested to the diversity of human culture under threat from the neoliberal vision—musicians who made their own eccentric instruments, cobblers who handmade quality shoes in their shops not as luxury goods but as necessities for workers, and people regularly creating, rather than consuming, their own culture around rubbish can fires and wooden crates.
It was fitting, then, that we met Marketa for dinner at St. John Bread and Wine opposite Spitalfields. St. John’s might be my favorite restaurant anywhere. I will write about our meal in my London restaurant round-up. For now, I’ll focus on the conversation. Marketa is always illuminating. She is always thinking, feeling, trying to understand her own aesthetic, considering what it means to be an artist, how her medium enables her to see the world, always seeking the spiritual dimension—which for her always has a deeply political element to it, even if the politics are never explicitly stated. They’re there in her subject matter and her framing.
Marketa brought perhaps a fifty test prints from her ongoing series on a Czech carnival that she’s been shooting for nineteen years. Here was her first insight, there is much to be gained by returning to a subject and community year after year—depth of relationship, sensitivity to change over time, and not a bit of self-discovery. And that’s where she offered a second insight, there’s often an emotional disconnect between when she does her strongest work and how she’s feeling. She confessed that she didn’t particularly enjoy this year’s carnival. Over the last two decades it has grown from perhaps eighty people to over five thousand. Going this year was, for her, kind of a miserable experience—too many people observing, not participating, not wearing masks, making a spectacle of the whole thing. And yet, when she started to review her test prints, she realized that she had taken some of the strongest photographs of the carnival yet. Conversely, she confessed, that when she is feeling euphoric, carried away by the joyous feeling of the crowd, she often takes photographs that are not particularly good. Her own internal euphoria often causes her to misjudge what she’s doing—to think it is better than it is.
I can relate. I usually hate my sermons before I preach them. Often, it is the texts that turn out to be my best work—texts that get anthologized, republished in magazines, or assigned in college courses—that I have most negative reactions to prior to preaching. I suspect that is because that when I do my best work, I am deeply emotionally connected to it and this makes me aware of its flaws rather than its strengths just as I am about to put it out in the world.
I know that I am not alone in this. Not only does Marketa’s experience resonate with mine, but I have had a few conversations with my friend Titonton Duvante over the years on the subject. Titonton has been a techno innovator for almost thirty years. When he is really on, really connected with what he is doing, he is amongst the best electronic musicians out there. I have listened to a few thousand DJ and live sets over the last twenty-five plus years and some of Titonton’s are among the most memorable. But here’s the thing, he’s told me that there’s an exact relation between how nervous he feels, how anxious he is, and how good his performance ends up being. If he’s really nervous, on the verge of losing it nervous, then almost he inevitably offers a masterful performance. If not, then not.
Clearly there’s something about the emotional investment an artist has in their art—and preachers are, amongst other things, artists—that is closely correlated to their artistic production.
Back to Marketa... While we were together, she talked a bit about her recent show at the Tate and her upcoming show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. She and my parents had an extended conversation, which I won’t relate, about the various economic challenges artists face. And she shared that last year she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal from the Czech government. Of course, Marketa had a story about Jan Masaryk.
Her grandmother loved Jan Masaryk, thought he was a humane, sensible, and cultured leader. When the Stalinists seized power, they threw Jan Masaryk out of a window. He died. Marketa was four and she remembers her grandmother being completely distraught, sobbing, over and over again, “They’ve killed Masaryk. They’ve killed Masaryk.”
She told me that when she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal she thought of her grandmother. She imagined her smiling down from heaven on that day, proud of her granddaughter who had resisted the Stalinists and was now being honored with a medal named for a political leader who she had admired.
Spitalfields has changed. The street culture that Marketa photograph is entirely gone—washed away by upmarket shops and good. The cobblers who handmade shoes for the working poor have been replaced by boutique stores that sell fancy shoes, still handmade, to the affluent. Neoliberalism has succeeded in destroying so much of the vibrancy and power of the working-class throughout not just Britain, but the world. And yet, there’s something about Marketa’s story of her grandmother and the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal. It isn’t about anything as quaint as triumph of good over evil or the inevitable collapse of totalitarian regimes or anything else that I might find truly comforting. It has more to do with the power of perseverance and the truth that the future is always unwritten and that resistance, in some for another, continues. And that there is great power to be found in preserving, through stories, through photographs, in all the forms we can. We create records of resistance, memories and stories, so that, even after its defeat—for Jan Masaryk was certainly defeated—our resistance might continue to inspire future resistance to tyranny.
Jul 13, 2019
The crisis in the United States keeps getting worse and worse. Today as I wandered through Arles members of my congregation in Houston participated in protests against President Trump’s planned ICE raids. His administration’s anti-human and anti-immigrant policies are part of the larger global crisis. I have been thinking about the crisis a lot since I have been in France. Much of the photography at Les Rencontres d’Arles is focused on the crisis. And my intention is to make it the major focus of congregational life when I return. I think that the moment we are in requires religious communities to confront it if they are to be faithful to humanity, God, and nature.
Right now, though, I am spending my time in beautiful cafes in Arles drinking rose with my family. I guess that’s what privilege really is in the end, the ability to step outside or away from the world’s crises. And at this age, with my Harvard education, my many trips to Europe and on vacation in other parts of the world, my more than modest income, my significant cultural resources, and, of course, my skin color and citizenship status, I feel quite privileged.
When I return to the United States I will do my best to weaponize that privilege: preaching about the rise of totalitarianism, writing about white supremacy, organizing and attending protests and marches, attempting to develop and articulate spiritual practices and theological resources for confronting the intertwined economic, ecological, social, political, and, well, really spiritual crises humanity faces in these opening decades of the twenty-first century. But now, I just feel my privilege.
I feel it when I attend an exhibition like Philippe Chancel’s. His work emphasizes the global nature of the current crisis: the Republican destruction of the city of Flint’s municipal water system is seen as part of the same cycle of ecological destruction that is decimating parts of Africa or China. It is revealed to be a symptom of a political and economic class that is more interested in its own self-interest than in serving the needs of the vast majority of working people. While the conditions and the political systems are almost incomparably different Chancel is on point in his implicit comparison between a Michigan governed by Rick Snyder or a North Korea run by Kim Jong-un. In both situations the rich and powerful--the most privileged--are fine while poor and working people suffer.
In the midst of the global crises, I think that the for challenge someone like me is partly about holding onto my own humanity. In the end, privilege contains within it the possibility of shedding one’s humanity. I believe that there is only one human family and that we are all, ultimately, part of the same earthly community. Privilege is based on separation. The ability to step away from the experiences that most people have. And, well, in a world filled with refugees, economic exploitation, and many other kinds of discrimination and systematic violence, I feel quite privileged--which is to say separate and insulated--here in the South of France.
Jul 12, 2019
The entire reason why we’re in Arles is to attend Les Rencontres d’Arles. It is a three month long international photography festival, now celebrating its fiftieth year. Throughout the festival, the city is awash in photography. There are photographic images, photographers, and photography students. Street art of a very special kind springs up on almost every wall of the ancient city--digital prints of photographs wheat-pasted to the stucco, plaster, wood, and brick. Every little cafe or shop seems to have its own show. And throughout Arles there are major exhibits featuring some of the most important figures in the history of photography.
So far, we have been almost half a dozen shows. Yesterday I went to Germaine Krull & Jacques Remy, Un Voyage Marseille-Rio 1941 and La Movida, Chronique d’une Agitation, 1978 — 1988. Both were in or adjacent to the Cloître Saint-Trophime, a magnificent 12th century cloister featuring exquisite stone carvings surrounding a beautiful courtyard.
The Germaine Krull exhibition chronicled the voyage and exile of a group of French political dissidents and European refugees. They fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. They boarded a freighter run by Vichy partisans and eventually ended up in a penal colony in the North of Africa. The photographs themselves were not particularly interesting. They more-or-less looked like snapshots that someone took of their friends. But as historical documents they are incredible. They show the conditions under which important dissidents like Victor and Vlady Serge lived during the opening years of World War II. And they emphasized that the existence of stateless or semi-stateless refugees is not a recent problem. It dates from the instant that states acquired the necessary technology to demarcate people along the lines of citizenship.
As La Movida exhibition paired beautifully with Libuse’s exhibition. The bodies of work were roughly contemporaneous. And so was the subject matter. While there were many aesthetic differences, the primary difference was the political environment under which the photograph’s were taken. Most of Libuse’s photographs are intimate personal documents chronicling people on the margin’s of society efforts to privately find freedom under a totalitarian regime. In contrast, the four photographers whose work is featured in La Movida lived in a society where people were beginning to publicly pursue freedom after the collapse of a fascist state. Their work generally lacked the intimacy of Libuse’s. It captured the hunger for freedom that people have after freedom becomes possible—as opposed to the way people create free spaces, autonomous zones, in their efforts to privately resist.
The other thing I was reminded of in La Movida exhibition is that I am now old enough to have lived through periods that are now historical. I was an early teen—almost precisely the age my son is now—when the late photographs in both Libuse’s exhibition and the La Movida exhibition were taken. Looking at them I was also reminded of my friend Todd Sines’s photographs of the 1990s techno scene in Detroit--another moment that is both increasingly historically distant and important.
Nov 13, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 11, 2018
“Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” Those words about the United States are attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They are apocryphal. He did not actually say them. But it is a good quote. And sometimes it feels like an accurate assessment of this country.
Today might be a day when many of us resonate with Churchill’s apocryphal assessment. The midterm elections were on Tuesday. They returned the federal government to mixed rule. The group of people who have just been elected to Congress includes the largest number of women ever. There will now be more than one hundred Congresswomen. Many of them are left-leaning and opposed to the current presidential administration. This may put a check on the President’s more autocratic and totalitarian tendencies. At the same time, the firing of the Attorney General and the appointment of an Acting Attorney General appear to be pushing the country closer to a constitutional crisis. If that comes then we will see how many people in this country are really interested in doing the right thing: struggling against rising totalitarianism and for the project of collective liberation.
At the same time there has been another mass shooting, this time in Thousand Oaks California. These events have become so common that there are now people who have lived through two gun massacres. They have become so common that they are in danger of no longer being news. They have become so common that the writer Roxane Gay felt moved to pen a column pleading, “Be shocked by the massacre at a bar. It’s not normal.” They have become so common a few days after Gay’s column was published news of the massacre has largely disappeared. They have become so common that few politicians seem to even feel the need to make cursory gestures to finding solutions to the ongoing epidemic of gun violence.
All of this takes place at a time when scientists are warning us that we may have only two years to address the existential threat of climate change. And, as this week’s news has made clear, it is an existential threat. California is burning. More than twenty-five people are dead. Billions of dollars of damage has been done. Forests are wrecked for the coming generations. But despite this horror there appears to be no collective will to address this profound crisis.
I picked today’s sermon topic, “Democracy in Crisis,” knowing that no matter which party won the midterm elections democracy, and the human species, would continue to be in crisis.
I also picked today’s sermon topic with the knowledge that this Sunday marks the anniversaries of two great crises in democracy. Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. World War I was great crisis in democracy. During and immediately after the war the administration of President Woodrow Wilson waged an all out assault on this country’s grassroots democratic movements. Thousands of political dissenters and antiwar activists were jailed. Dozens of them were killed. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were effectively outlawed. The great Socialist Party of Eugene Debs was all but destroyed. At the same time, a dramatic rise in white supremacist violence unleashed epidemics of race riots and lynchings. The regime of Jim Crow and white supremacy were effectively solidified throughout most of the country for several decades--a crisis in democracy if there ever was one.
This weekend also marks the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht--the Night of Broken Glass. The name comes from the smashing of the windows of Jewish places of worship, homes, and shops. It signaled that the remnants of liberal democracy in Germany had been destroyed. It signaled that the country had fully become committed to a policy of anti-semitic genocide. It was the start of the Holocaust. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by speaking out against it. And Roosevelt’s administration responded by doing nothing to aid the thousands of Jews who were trying to flee to safety. The ascent of totalitarianism, the closing of borders to its refugees--crises in democracy.
And so, I picked the topic of “Democracy in Crisis” for today because I understood that whatever happened this week there would be a need to talk about the crises of democracy. Maybe this is because democracy seems to be perpetually in crisis. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has claimed that contemporary “politics is civil war by other means.” There are no ultimate resolution to political questions. No one ever wins, not really. This group is dominant and then that. Totalitarianism seems to be defeated in one generation but comes back in the next. Political liberalism appears to offer the most stable form of contemporary government and then it seems to dissolve before waves of demagoguery. Democratic socialism, syndicalism, all the forms of the grass roots democracy surge then and disappear in a generation. There is no final outcome, only ever shifting sands.
We can see this in the United States when we look at the current political situation. As the great baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” The writer Rebecca Solnit recently published a piece in the Guardian arguing that the Civil War never ended. She wrote, “In the 158th year of the American Civil War, also known as 2018, the Confederacy continues its recent resurgence.” Other writers and scholars, myself included, have made similar claims.
We can also see the same dynamic at play when we look to Europe. Today Poland’s elected leaders are joining with avowed nationalists, anti-semites, and even Nazi admirers in a march in Warsaw. More than hundred thousand people are expected to attend. The anti-fascist counter protest will be much smaller. The alliance of the government of Poland with fascists is a reminder that the crisis of democracy is global.
Increasing global inequality is another reminder that the crisis of democracy transcends this country. Here in the United States more than forty years of assaults on labor rights, widespread automation, and the advent of a global integrated economy where workers from different countries directly compete against each other have had their toll. Today the richest three people in this country have more wealth than the poorest fifty percent of the population. Similar dynamics can be seen across the world. Such economic inequality is directly tied to the overall crisis of democracy.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked with you about some of the other contours of the present crisis of democracy. We spoke about how this country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. Last week we spoke about the possibility of the tradition of virtue ethics to help us find a way out of the crisis. Today I want to share with you another resource as we struggle to confront the crisis. It is the radical imagination.
The radical imagination... Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson told us, “Imagination is a very high sort of seeing...” The eighteenth-century poet Phyllis Wheatley asked, “Imagination! who can sing thy force?” So it should be no wonder that the contemporary poet Diane di Prima has warned us, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Even as she urged us to remember, “every man / every woman carries a firmament inside / & the stars in it are not the stars in the sky.”
The radical imagination... I want to tell you something very important. Every struggle for justice, every social movement, every attempt to make the world a better place, starts with an act of imagination. It begins with some group of people who are bold enough to imagine that the things can be different than they are.
Such imaginings can be acts of bravery. As di Prima put it, “the ground of imagination is fearlessness.” We are often told that things are what they are, they cannot be changed. And yet, things have changed. And when they have it has been because people have been willing to say, as the indigenous movement the Zapatistas have said, “In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live.” The Zapatistas represent some of the poorest of the Mexican people. Many of them live on less than a dollar a day. And yet, over the past twenty-five years they have been able to articulate a vision of a different world where “peace, justice and liberty” are common, concrete, and not abstract concepts.
The abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries who fought to end slavery were bold enough to imagine a world where slavery did not exist. This despite the fact that until their victories slavery had existed in some form in every human civilization. The ancients Greek had it. Europeans enslaved each other throughout the middle ages. Slavery was practiced in Africa, in Asia, and among the indigenous nations of the Americas as well. Until 1865 slavery formed the bedrock of the United States’s economy. And yet, men and women like Frederick Douglass could imagine a day “When the accursed slave system shall once be abolished.”
Generations later, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders like him had, in King's words, "the audacity to believe" that the world could be free of racism and violence. They imagined that world and then set about building it. Today in this country slavery is outlawed and the overtly racist laws of Jim Crow, the disgusting claim of “separate but equal,” have been overturned.
Susan B. Anthony and other nineteenth and early twentieth-century feminists could imagine a world in which women had equal rights with men. She could declare, “there will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” Using their imagination, they were able to organize and struggle to win voting rights for women. And that at a time when many men could not imagine women as doctors, or lawyers, or religious leaders.
I could go on. I suspect that you get the point. Every struggle for justice begins with the radical imagination, the audacity to believe that the supposedly impossible will become the possible. And so, today, as democracy is in crisis, I want to give you gift. I want to give you a space to unleash your own radical imagination. I want to ask you the question, What is your vision for a just world? My friend Chris Crass has developed an exercise to help people imagine the world they would like to create.
I invite you to get comfortable. Close your eyes. Notice your body. Notice how it feels to sit in your pew. Notice how it feels to sit in this sanctuary filled with people inspired by our Unitarian Universalist tradition’s vision of love for humanity. Take a deep breath. Feel the air as it enters your lungs, bringing with it the force of life. As you exhale, feel your body releasing any stress and any negative emotions you have. Feel that negativity drain to the ground. Stay with your breath and focus on it as you inhale and exhale five times. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Now, give yourself permission to think creatively and expansively about: The world you are working to create. What is your vision for a just society? What is your vision for a society where democracy is no longer in crisis? There is so much violence that exists in the world. It exists in the government. It exists in our communities. Sometimes it exists in our homes. If you could imagine all of that shifting, all of that hate and fear disappearing, what would the world be like? If you woke up tomorrow and democracy was no longer in crisis what would the world be like? If you left your home a week from now and discovered that white supremacy had been dismantled what would your neighborhood be like? If you went to work a month from now and found that climate change was no longer a crisis what would humanity’s relationship to the planet be like? What can you imagine? What would it look like in family or your home? In your neighborhood? How would people relate to each other? How would people relate to resources and to the planet? In this new vision, what is valued, who is valued and how?
Imagine that the world you dream about has come to fruition. Imagine that the honest world, the fair world, has arrived. Imagine that you encounter it today, after you leave this worship service. When you depart from this sanctuary what do you find outside of the door? As you travel down the street what kind of institutions and resources do you discover? What do they look like? What sort of services are there? What values are the economy based on? As you return to your home, what does it look like? What is your neighborhood like? What kind of activities are going on? How are decisions being made? How is conflict dealt with? Can you think about the rest of the city of Houston? What are other neighborhoods like? What about other cities? What is Dallas like? Or other states or countries? What is California like? Or Poland?
When you are ready, bring yourself back to what is happening in our sanctuary. Hold onto your vision. As you do, I invite you to consider these words from Arundhati Roy, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." Your vision, however, tenuous is part of the better world’s quiet breath.
Today, after you leave this service, I invite you find someone you do not know already and share with them some part of your vision. By speaking it aloud you may just bring it closer to being. By speaking it aloud you might just strengthen your own resolve to work towards creating it.
With that invitation to share your vision in mind, I close our sermon with these of words commission from our tradition:
Go out into the highways and by-ways,
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light
to the hearts and minds of all people.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage.
May it be so,
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018
This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.
One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.
People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.
Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.
Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.
Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.
Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.
This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.
We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:
If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...
There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.
My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*
Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.
Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.
It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.
The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.
And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”
Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.
Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.
Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”
But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.
Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.
A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”
Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.
The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.
But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.
I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.
I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.
But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.
Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.
Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:
You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
May those words be true for each of us.
Amen and Blessed.
* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.
Oct 29, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 29, 2018
This morning I find myself needing to give a rather different sermon than I had planned. Yesterday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, the week’s bomb threats by would-be a right-wing terrorist, and the current presidential administration’s ongoing assault on truth, decency, and democratic norms require it.
Today, we need to stop and recognize where we are. Today, we need to stop and articulate who we are. Today, we need to stop and talk about what we must do.
I am going to begin my sermon by doing something that might seem a little odd to you all. I am going to take off my stole. I wear this stole as a symbol of my religious office. In our tradition it means that I am an ordained minister.
I am taking off my stole right now because I want to address you for a few minutes as something other than your minister. I recognize that is not fully possible. I am in the pulpit and, right now, I am religious leader of this congregation.
But for a little while, I want to consciously address you from another place--from another role I inhabit. I am not just a parish minister. I also a scholar. I have a PhD from Harvard University. And one of the things I specialize in is the study of white supremacist and white nationalist movements and totalitarian regimes. Just last month I gave a talk at San Francisco State University on the political ideology of the Ku Klux Klan.
And so, I want to be clear that what I about to say is not something I say lightly. I want to be clear that I say it with the full authority of someone who has spent years of his life studying the dynamics of terror, authoritarianism, and white supremacy.
This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. More precisely, this country is on the verge of becoming ruled by a neo-Confederate regime. In many ways, it already is one. The country has become what’s called a mixed regime. It already exhibits aspects of a totalitarianism even while it remains, formally, a liberal democracy.
I am going to talk with you about each of those claims. I want to be clear about where we are right now in the arc of human history. We cannot live authentically as a religious community if we do not recognize the context within which we live, the moment of history that we inhabit. We need to recognize where we are if we are to live our faith authentically.
This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are organized around the personality for a charismatic leader who personifies the state’s power. A totalitarian state seeks global domination and total subjugation of all who live within its borders. Its leaders identify a racial or minority group who must be purged from the body politic in order for their vision of society to thrive. Totalitarian states have no respect for the rule of law. Instead, they concentrate power in the head of state.
The Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt described this last dynamic most clearly when he argued, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” By this he meant, that the sovereign, the person who holds power, is inherently above the law because he is the law. Therefore, the sovereign can do nothing illegal. Since he is the law, any action he takes is fundamentally legal. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. There are clear parallels between Schmitt’s views and those of the man just confirmed as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. The newest Justice appears to believe that the President cannot be subpoenaed by employees of the Justice Department because they work for him.
This is not the only parallel to be found among right-wing partisans and totalitarian philosophers and politicians. The philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out that in order to function, totalitarian regimes have a deliberately loose relationship with the truth. She wrote, “Totalitarian politics... use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality... have all but disappeared.” Let me repeat that quote, “Totalitarian politics... use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality... have all but disappeared.” The constant cries of fake news and attacks on the press by the man who currently holds the nation’s highest office should make the dynamics Arendt describes seem familiar.
Arendt has much to teach us about what totalitarianism is and how it comes about. In her classic text, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt makes two further observations about totalitarianism. First, it is based in the politics of terror. Second, that its origins lie in antisemitism.
In a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. The threat of arbitrary violence haunts every waking. People who live under a totalitarian regime never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that regardless of who they are or what they have done they may meet a terrible end. Arendt tells us, in totalitarian regime, “nobody... can ever be free of fear.” “Terror,” she warns, “strikes without any preliminary provocation... its victims... objectively innocent... chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” As I offer you those words, I want you to think about this country’s epidemic of gun violence. And I want us to pause and hold in our hearts yesterday’s eleven victims of antisemitic gun violence at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.
Yesterday’s attack on a synagogue would not have surprised Arendt. She understood that antisemitism was an essential element of totalitarianism. Totalitarians gain power by identifying a societal enemy, a scapegoat, on whom they can lay the blame for society’s ills. They then target those people for violent excision from society. Jews are often the scapegoats. For hundreds of years there have been those who blame a secret conspiracy of Jews for the world’s ills. This idea was at the root of Nazism. And it is present in the discourse of those contemporary politicians who seem to aspire to totalitarianism.
The Hungarian philanthropist and investment banker George Soros comes from a Jewish family. He survived the Holocaust. Today, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and the current President of the United States have all attacked him for supporting progressive causes. Soros was one of the targets of this past weeks bomb threats. During the contentious struggle over the appointment of the most recent Supreme Court Justice, the President tweeted that protesters against the then nominee were “‘professionals’ who were ‘paid by (George) Soros and others.’” Yesterday, the President laughed when someone at one his rallies shouted out the word “Soros” when he “attacked ‘globalists’ who are ‘cheating’ American workers.” The word globalist, alongside the word cosmopolitan, has a history of being used as a codeword by antisemites to describe Jews.
Globalists, in totalitarian regimes, and in the narratives of men like Orban and the current US President, are in league with another enemy. For them, that enemy is migrants, the Mexicans who many fear are coming to take their jobs. Jimmy Santiago Baca reminds us that such narratives serve the powerful, not the weak. He writes,
I see this, and I hear only a few people
got all the money in this world, the rest
count their pennies to buy bread and butter.
Totalitarians divide society in order to preserve the privilege of the powerful. That is exactly what is happening when men like the current President attack migrants. It is also what is happening when he attacks transgender people, another favorite target of totalitarians.
When I say that this country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state I have all of these dynamics in mind. A charismatic leader who feels he is above the rule of law, widespread campaigns of lies, terror, antisemitism... all of these are present in our society today.
The totalitarian state that I fear is emerging is not a generic totalitarian state. It is one rooted deeply in American culture. It is an aspiring neo-Confederate regime. Let me explain, since its inception a leading strain of thought, culture and economic practice in the United States has been brazenly white supremacist. The Constitution was written to favor slaveholding states. The Electoral College is partially a legacy of slavery. It was designed to ensure that Southern slave states had disproportion power in the new republic. Otherwise, they threatened secession. Indeed, when a split electorate chose an anti-slavery politician as President the South did secede.
The Civil War was a war to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy. It was also a war to maintain male supremacy. The two substantive differences between the United States Constitution and the Confederate States Constitution were that the second proclaimed that only whites and only males could be ever citizens.
When I label the presidential administration neo-Confederate I am explicitly thinking of the Confederacy’s claim to white male supremacy. The President’s most recent choice for a Supreme Court Justice and his appointment of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General can be read as a commitment to an ideology that puts the needs and rights of white males over and against the rights of everyone else.
I use the label neo-Confederate to place the presidential administration within the context of American history. I use it to remind us that this country’s rising forces of reaction are not a foreign threat. They represent a cultural and political tradition that is deeply embedded in this country. I use it to remind us that the struggle against it is not the struggle of our generation alone. It is a struggle that has been going on since the abolitionists were brave enough to imagine that this country could offer citizenship to all: black, white, male, female, transgender... It is a struggle that was at the root of the civil rights movement. And it is a struggle that continues today.
Finally, I want to turn to the claim that this country has become a mixed-regime. In some ways, the state is already functioning as a full-blown totalitarian regime. We have seen this in the caging of children at the border. We have seen it in the attack on transgender rights. We have seen it in the impunity that police officers often receive when they kill people of color. We have seen it in the way the President attacks the press as the enemy of the people. We have seen it in the way he attacks private citizens who disagree with him.
In a mixed-regime elements of multiple kinds of political systems are present. For many people of color, for many immigrants, for many transgender people, the United States is already essentially a totalitarian regime. And yet, it maintains aspects of a liberal democracy. Many of us, especially people with what one of my friends likes to call “the complexion connection,” still have the right to vote. We still have freedom of speech. We still can tell the truth. We can denounce lies. We can still feel safe in our own homes and in our places of work. Such privileges are not true for all of us. And to name that dynamic is to recognize that for many people totalitarianism has already come to the United States.
This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. It is on the verge of transforming into a neo-Confederate regime. For many people, it already is one.
I admit, all of this political philosophy and history is dense material for a Sunday morning. And it is not exactly a sermon fare.
And so, now, I am going to put my stole back on. And I am going to read a letter that Bob Miller and I sent this morning to the Congregation Jewish Community North, where our Tapestry campus rents space. And then I am going to invite Mark and the choir to sing to us. And then I am going to offer you a brief homily on who we are and what we must do.
Dear Rabbi Siger and Members of the Congregation Jewish Community North:
Like people of good faith everywhere, we are distressed to learn of yesterday’s attacks on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. Antisemitism is a vile form of hatred. We mourn this week’s dead in Pittsburgh. We mourn all of the millions who have lost their lives over the centuries to antisemitism. We join our voices with those who denounce it. We join our hands with those who work against it. We join our hearts with those who weep at the devastation that it continues to cause.
Our Tapestry campus is honored to share space with your congregation. If there is anything we do for you please let us. This includes working with you to support any existing or future plans around security.
On behalf of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, we offer a prayer for a peaceful world free from hatred and violence.
The Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen, Interim Senior Minister
Bob Miller, Board President
I would like to now invite Mark and the choir up to sing us a song they sang last week, “Al Shlosha D'varim.” As Mark told us last week, the Hebrew of this song translates, “The world is sustained by three things: by truth, by justice, and by peace.” There are no better words for times like these.
The world is sustained by truth, by justice, and by peace. Originally, I was going to offer you a sermon specifically tailored to the last days of the month and first days of next month. The end of October and the beginning of November are home to a host of holidays: Samhain, Halloween, the Day of the Dead, All Souls Day... Neo-pagan theologian Starhawk describes this time of year as when “the veils between the worlds begin to thin.” Across different cultures and religions people gather to remember ancestors, to mourn the dead, to reflect upon mortality, and consider each of our places within the cycle of life.
I do not think we need, or have time for, a full sermon in light of all I have just said. Instead, I want to relate the season’s holidays to the events of the hour. Earlier I said, it is important to recognize where we are. But that is not enough. We also need to articulate who we are and what we must do.
These are tasks for the religious community. As the President of our Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray has told us “this is no time for a casual faith or a casual commitment to your values, your community, your congregation, your soul, and your faith.” When we articulate who are and what we must do we become anything but a casual faith.
Out of respect for the season’s holidays, I want to hone in on a single aspect of who are we and what we must do. We are a community of memory. This is one of the gifts of religious community. It offers us the opportunity to take part in conversations that stretch beyond a single generation. It gives us the chance to be part of something that will survive us. It lets us find hope and wisdom in those who were here before us. In doing so, it enables us to connect to something greater than ourselves: the great flow of human history. When we do we are reminded that our own lives are transitory. Yet at the same time we are also reminded that when we die we leave much behind on this Earth. This is true for us no matter how humble or haughty we were while we trod across this muddy blue ball of a planet.
As a community of memory we describe what is and what has been. This truth telling is one of the most important functions of a religious community in these times. We are reminded of this when we read the works of someone like Anna Akhmatova, the magnificent poet who survived Stalin’s terror. In her great poem “Requiem” she reminds us that simply describing the what is of the horrors of the world is a profound act of resistance. Writing of her time in a gulag, she recounts a conversation she had with another inmate:
“‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered - ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.”
As a community of memory our church exists across time, across the generations. There is a story that preachers like to tell about how participating in such a community can draw us out of the private pains of our own lives and connect with us the justice, the peace, and the truth that sustain the world.
The story is about the Cathedral of Chartes. It is in France, located a bit South of Paris. It is considered one of the true treasures of the world, the sort of thing that inspires flights of poetry and stirrings of the soul. The stained glass, I have read, is particularly beautiful. Edith Warton captured something of it in her poem “Chartes:”
Immense, august, like some Titanic bloom,
The mighty choir unfolds its lithic core,
Petalled with panes of azure, gules and or,
Splendidly lambent in the Gothic gloom,
And stamened with keen flamelets that illume
The pale high-altar.
Like many a medieval cathedral, it took years to build. Many of the people who started building it died before it was completed. Or they began working on the church when they were young adults and finished when they were grandparents.
One day, in the middle of the construction, the story goes, a traveler came to Chartes. She went to the site as the day was winding down. She asked one worker, covered in dust, what he did. He was a stonemason. She asked the next. He said he was a glassblower. She asked another, a blacksmith.
As the traveler walked into the cathedral’s interior she encountered a woman with a broom. She was sweeping up the chips of stone from the stonemason. She was cleaning up the cast aside incandescent filaments from the glassblower. She was picking up fragments of iron left behind by the blacksmith. The traveler asked the woman what she was doing. She paused. She leaned on her broom. She looked around her at the columns without roofs, at the windows without panes, at the floors without flagstones, and said, “Me? I’m building a cathedral for the Glory of God Almighty.”*
Unitarian Universalists do not generally build cathedrals for the Glory of God Almighty. There are a few exceptions: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple outside of Chicago; Albert Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester; Universalist Memorial Church in Washington, DC... The best parts of our tradition have done something else. They have sought to maintain the human in the face of the demonic. They have struggled against the totalitarian regimes of yesteryear. They have sought to build the better world, the world that is always almost come but never quite here. Women and men like Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frances Ellen Watkins, James Luther Adams, and, today, Mark Morrison-Reed, and Susan Frederick-Gray have repeatedly called out from the depths of our tradition to remind us that we are at our most human when we are seekers of truth, peace, and justice.
Their teachings are a gift we have given the world. It is the cathedral we have sought to build, generation-to-generation, metaphoric stone by metaphoric stone. It is incomplete. What we are called to do today is to do our part, contribute our bit, to this great work of sustaining the world through truth, justice, and peace. On a day like today, we honor the ancestors, the Theodore Parkers and Elizabeth Peabodys, the Sophia Fahses and the Clarence Skinners, who have gone before. We remember the dead of this congregation. The women and men who sustained it in previous generations. They sustained it, in part, so that we could contribute our own bricks to the great cathedral of justice. Adorn Strambler, Sarah Nelson Crawford, and John Kellet, none of whom I knew, helped to make this community what it is: a community of devoted to love and justice sustained across time in pursuit of peace and truth. When we gather we honor them. When we gather we unite with many who have gone before and contributed to the great struggles that we now find ourselves engaged in.
Now, the scholar in me wants to offer a footnote about how this is not all of our tradition, or even the majority of it. I could point that out the white supremacist John C. Calhoun, the man who the historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the Marx of the master class,” was a Unitarian. But I am not going to do that. Instead, I want to again say that this is the best part of our tradition. It is the part of the tradition that we are called to honor. And it is a tradition that teaches that one of our most radical acts is simply to assert our own humanity in the face of dehumanizing totalitarianism.
Friends, in times like these, we are called to speak truth,
we are called to work for justice,
to sit down,
to be cogs in the wheels of the machine
that would crush the human from the earth.
But we are called to much more than that,
we are called to be human,
to delight in the unseasonal sun,
to laugh with our friends,
to celebrate vegetable gardens,
to pet dogs,
to love each other.
it is this common human decency,
that will save us from all of the terror
that we face.
It is common human decency,
the sense that we are all part of the same human family,
that each of us deserves respect,
that each of us is worthy of love,
that we strive to protect
in these difficult times.
And so, I say, today,
if you feel overwhelmed,
as I do,
by the rising madness of it all,
let us remember
that it is important to march,
but it is more important
to simply embrace the human in each other
to see the pain and the joy
in each other’s faces.
It is by being human with each other
that we will ultimately live into a world
where truth, justice, and peace,
and the terror of totalitarianism
has become but a memory,
echoing in the past.
As I close I invite you to join with me a simple prayer:
Oh, spirit of life,
that some call God,
and others name,
be with each of us,
as we struggle to see the human in each other,
and remind us,
that in our human hands
and our human hearts
lies the power
and the hope that we are looking for,
the power to embrace our loves
and the power to change the world for the better.
And before the congregation says Amen,
I invite you into a minute of silence,
to honor the dead,
to consider our own place in the work
of building the cathedral of justice,
and to contemplate all that has been said.
We descend into silence with the hope that our sermon,
with all its many imperfections,
has done its own small work in building
the cathedral of justice.
There will now be a minute of silence.
Now, let the congregation say Amen.
* This version of the story is partially drawn from Robert Fulghum, “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It” (New York: Random House, 1988), 74-75.