Grace Lee Boggs: The Next American Revolution


as preached April 28, 2024 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston

One of the pleasures of our Lives of the Spirit series has been hearing from those of you who have met or had personal relationships with some of the great spiritual activists of the twentieth century. In the last months, a few of you have shared with me about the times you met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what it was like when Thich Nhat Hanh came to First Unitarian Universalist, and encounters with Dorothy Day and Fannie Lou Hamer.

Listening to your stories has provided me with a real education. I am blessed to serve a religious community where the members take the life of the spirit so seriously that some of you have literally found yourselves amongst the saints. For if there are such people, surely King, Hanh, Day, and Hamer are in their number.

“Life is just a chance to grow a soul,” I have said throughout our series. The words are attributed to the Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies, one of our tradition’s great spiritual activists, and the sentiment is shared by the subject of this month’s Lives of the Spirit programming. The Chinese American philosopher, community organizer, and godmother of the urban agriculture movement, Grace Lee Boggs wrote, “These are the times that try our souls. Each of us needs to undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation.”

Deeply aware of the intertwined crises of the climate catastrophe, rising white supremacy, and the global assault on democracy, Grace, at the end of her nearly eight decades of organizing, came to realize that successful movements for social justice were the ones which “grow our souls.” Confronting the catastrophes of the hour and building what Martin King named the Beloved Community meant, in her words, that “we need to see ourselves not mainly as victims but as new [people] … who … [recognize] the sacredness in ourselves and in others.”

The sacredness in ourselves and in others, life is a chance to grow our souls, Grace Lee Boggs is one of the two figures in our series who I met. And while I certainly would not describe us as close, I was privileged enough to have a couple of long conversations with her, to get to know the volunteer staff of the Boggs Center–the community organization she and her husband founded–and to spend time reading through her archives. To the extent that my soul has grown over the decades of my life, she has been someone who helped me to grow it.

My conversations with her took place at the Boggs Center, which doubled as the home that she and her husband James–he died in 1993–used as an organizing hub. Located in an economically devastated neighborhood on the East Side of Detroit, think the rougher parts of Fifth Ward, the center is a 1930s two story brick building with lovely hard wood floors and built-in bookshelves. We sat in the living room, her in an old, clearly comfortable, yellow armchair with a blanket on her lap and me on the sofa next to her.

Mostly we spoke of the necessity of spiritual activism. It was a position she had come to later in life, after many years as an unorthodox interpreter of Karl Marx. Sometimes our discussion strayed to stories from her incredible life and the people she had known. A few, the Detroit autoworker and philosopher Martin Glaberman, the writer and philosopher C. L. R. James, had influenced or intersected with the circle of Detroit, Chicago, and Ohio based political radicals who had mentored me when I was in my twenties and early thirties. Others were nationally known cultural figures like Danny Glover, the superstar academic Robin Kelley, or the feminist pagan theologian Starhawk.

Through it all, Grace radiated a sense of serene calm and mischievous teasing humor. I remember that she laughed a fair amount and poked a bit of fun at herself. Mostly, though, my time with her affirmed my Unitarian Universalist belief in salvation by character. This is the old idea that we are what we do. Deeds, not creeds, we sometimes summarize it. The good person integrates their ideas with their actions.

Here at First Unitarian Universalist, and this is one of things I really appreciate about you, we affirm this perspective each week when we recite our covenant. Near the beginning of our service, we promise each other that “service is our prayer.” Growing our souls, we assert, is a this worldly project. It is something we do, here, on this terrestrial plane, together as we seek to bring a little bit more joy, beauty, and goodness into being.

Service is our prayer; Grace described her perspective as an understanding that “the heart of movement building is the concept of two-sided transformation.” In order to create a more just society, we need to change “both … ourselves and our institutions,” she wrote. Her more than eighty years as an organizer taught her that it was not enough to just seek personal enlightenment. Nor was changing the structures of institutional power alone sufficient. Real change only happens when the personal and the institutional are paired. Taken on their own, she recognized, each can unleash significant harm.

Seek only personal transformation and there is a risk of falling into what some Buddhists call spiritual narcissism. This condition occurs when someone engages in spirituality as an escape from reality rather than as a way to deepen connection to it. Spiritual narcissists often pursue practices like meditation or prayer as a way to find refuge from suffering. Rather than seek, in some way, to alleviate pain, they try to find an inward light or an internal peace to blot it out. Their sense of spiritual transformation is disconnected from service to the world. As Thich Nhat Hanh would point out, enlightenment comes meditative or prayerful practice is combined with service to the world. With that in mind, I suspect that you have likely met such people or been tempted down the path of spiritual narcissism yourself at some point. In our era of self-help gurus, meditation groups divorced from religious communities, and corporate wellness guides, spiritual narcissism is an easy trap to fall into. It is easy to separate spiritual practice from service. I will admit that I have been tempted towards it on more than one occasion.

Research, reading, and writing are, for me, a part of my spiritual practice. I have, sometimes, found myself obsessing over some particular piece of scholarly minutia the mastering of which did not make the slightest iota of difference to the world around me but was, oh, so satisfying to grasp.

There is a story about the poet Ezra Pound that I sometimes think of when considering spiritual narcissism. It involves his friend T. S. Eliot. It seems that the two were visiting together. Pound was either staying at Eliot’s home or the reverse was true. Either way, they would meet up in the morning to share breakfast and then retire to separate rooms to write for the day. At the end of the day, they would check-in with each other about the progress they had made on whatever texts they were working on.

One day, the story goes, Eliot asked Pound, or maybe it was the other way around, what he had done that day. Pound responded, “Well, I started the day by putting in a comma. And at the end of the day, I took it back out.”

I started the day by putting in a comma. At the end of the day, I took it back out. Their deeply flawed politics aside, Eliot and Pound have long influenced me.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

That apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I am uncertain that I would experience either of their works all that differently if some of those commas were substituted with periods, replaced with semicolons, supplanted with em dashes, or taken out all together. Maybe the poets amongst you will feel differently. For me, the obsession with such a level of detail, unless directed towards some outward effect, might be a form of spiritual narcissism.

And here, a confession, I resisted my own tendency towards scholarly spiritual narcissism by deciding not to dig through my volumes of books to properly recall the details of that story. Someone after the first service came up to me and told me the story was actually about Oscar Wilde, and he was being self-deprecating!

Grace was not only concerned with spiritual narcissism. She knew that movements for justice divorced from the spiritual could tend towards the monstrous. This she learned from her long experience on the Left. As our video mentioned, she began her political life as a member of a small, dissident, Marxist party. The group she belonged to were Trotskyists. That is, they were followers of Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Soviet Union who had lost out to Joseph Stalin in the struggle for control of the Soviet Communist Party.

Their loyalty to Trotsky and their connection to the Soviet Union meant that Grace and her friends were well positioned to understand the horrors that Stalin and his allies unleashed upon the Soviet populace. They were some of the first on the Left to recognize that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian society, not a democratically run socialist one. Grace believed that this unfortunate situation had come about because the Soviet Communists had been more interested in seizing power than engaging in, as she wrote, “a protracted process involving empowerment and transformation.” Once they were victorious and replaced the Russian empire with the Soviet state they proceeded to behave much in the same way that the Tsar had acted towards the populace. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” someone in Grace’s circle would often say to me, quoting the English rocker Pete Townsend.

It is an insightful analysis that illuminates much of what has happened in Russia over the last century and a half. Soviet Communism replaced Tsarism. Putinism replaced Soviet Communism. None of the leaders involved engaged in the difficult work of spiritual transformation, of growing their souls. Instead, Stalin became the new Tsar. Instead, Putin has become the new Stalin, the new Tsar.

The only way out, the only way to break such cycles, is, Grace believed, to engage in the work of the two-sided transformation. We must, she argued, simultaneously reinvent revolution and ourselves. Instead of holding a view of social transformation tied, in her words, to “overarching ideologies, purist paradigms, and absolutist views of a static Paradise,” we need to come to recognize “the world is always being made and never finished.” Activism, the work of building the Beloved Community, is, itself better conceived of as “the journey rather than the arrival.” We are always in the process of growing our souls.

Our series, Lives of the Spirit, has been organized around a series of questions. These are: What is the good life for you? When do you know you are living it? What models, what exemplars, might you follow as you seek to live into it? For Grace, the answers to these questions came from her long life of political activism. They required a constant openness to asking questions. “What time is it in the clock of the world?,” she liked to ask. The implication was that the answers to such profound questions are different for each generation because the struggles that each generation faces are different. There is no static truth. Humanity is always evolving and each historical moment is unique.

This did not stop her from being something of a mystic. Mystics, as Howard Thurman has told us, are those people who discover something within their own “experience that opens up into the infinite.” And Grace certainly found things within her long life that she believed offered universal lessons for people devoted to social change and building the Beloved Community.

Her long life of activism, as we move towards the close of our sermon, I want to offer you a couple of intertwined pieces of narrative and reflection. First, more on her biography and what she came believe about the nature of what she named the “next American Revolution.” Second, a few thoughts on what she might say to us in our present political moment. And finally, some words on what her wisdom might mean for our ministry together.

We have already heard something about Grace’s biography from both Kristina Wang and her school children and Grace’s friend Danny Glover. A handful of other highlights. She was born in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents who owned a grocery store. A precious youth, she went on to be one of the earliest Chinese American women to earn a PhD. She studied philosophy at Bryn Mawr and read the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His concept of the dialectic, that society is made of contradictions which are eventually reconciled before giving way to a new of contradictions deeply influenced her. This gave her the sense that life was always about process and that human beings and human society were always growing and evolving. There is, in her view, no ultimate moment of arrival. Everything, each person, is forever a work in progress.

After graduate school, she found herself in Chicago where she soon became active in a Marxist party. It was called the Workers Party, not the Workers World Party, and it was one of the forerunners of the Democratic Socialists of America, the political organization that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Rashida Tlaib belong to. As a member of the organization, she threw herself into debates about the nature of revolution, and, as she put it, “arguments over which class, race, or gender was the main revolutionary social force; and binary oppositions between Left and Right.”

She befriended the great Trinidadian philosopher C. L. R. James, met her husband, the radical Detroit autoworker James Boggs, and with them wrote a number of the texts that shaped the nineteen sixties counterculture. She and her friends broke with Trotskyism and tried to imagine a Marxism and a socialism beyond totalitarianism. They came to the conclusion that the greatest threat to human dignity was neither capitalism nor Stalinism. It was a bureaucratic culture found both within government, whether democratic or Communist, and corporations. This culture formed “an ever-present self-perpetuating body over and above society” that served not the needs of the masses but, instead, the needs of the managers. It dehumanized everyone who was caught up in it. Workers, citizens, were treated as numbers, reduced to economic calculations.

In 1953, she moved to Detroit and there she stayed. She liked to say, “The most radical thing I ever did was stay put.” And she and her husband remained devoted to the city as it transformed from boom town to bust town. They went from seeing autoworkers as the most potentially revolutionary force in society to struggling to figure out how to organize in a city that had essentially collapsed. By the time James Boggs died in 1993, Detroit was a shell of itself. Huge tracks of it were abandoned. Parts of the city were literally reverting back to urban prairies.

Grace could have left. Many people did. But instead, she began to imagine the city as a space for building a new kind of society. Watching the waste of our consumerist culture, deeply aware of the gathering climate catastrophe, frustrated with the inability of electoral politics to transform peoples lives for the better, she became convinced that the next revolution would not be about creating a “higher standard of living dependent” on oil and imperialism. It would be about transforming ourselves into more soulful beings and our communities into places were we love more deeply and live more harmoniously with the all of being.

She met a man named Gerald Hairston and the two of them realized that the vast tracks of empty Detroit land presented an opportunity for this kind of transformation. They started an urban gardening movement which quickly spread throughout the city. People started growing their own food. They established, as Grace put it, “neighborhood gardens, youth gardens, church gardens, school gardens, hospital gardens, senior Independence gardens, Wellness gardens, Hope Takes Root gardens, and Kwanza gardens.” They changed the face of the city.

This experience caused her shift her theory of social change. As a longtime Marxist, she had long thought that it came from mass movements and huge actions. Now, instead, she started to believe it that came from, in her words, “small dialogues.” The next social revolution, the one that is necessary to combat the climate crisis, will be born, she believed, from the efforts of thousands of small organizations providing the opportunity for both social and personal change. The possibility of growing a soul even while doing what appears to be humble work, as she said, “tending to a handful of gardens, painting one or two murals a year, and fixing up a house or vacant lot.” Sound familiar?

This brings me to our present political moment. I suspect Grace would approve of the student occupations taking place across the country. She would see within these rapidly spreading, largely autonomous, events the opportunity for people to both try and transform institutions and to grow their souls. No doubt, she would denounce, as we all must, the incidents of infantile antisemitism that are present at some of them, but she would also see within them the new forms of spiritual solidarity and new forms of political practice that are necessary if we are to have a more peaceful world. She would note that at Columbia, Jewish participants in the protests have organized themselves to provide protective and respectful space for Muslim students at prayer. She would observe that Jewish students have invited Muslim students to observe Passover with them and together they have celebrated the ancient rite in such a way that it calls for the liberation of all peoples–Jews, Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, and Israelis alike.

She would argue that experiences of self-government, the ways in which, the students are having to organize themselves to run the encampments, that are part of such occupations can be life altering. Historically, the collective conversations, the lessons in democracy, that emerge at such times are often the forerunners of a more democratic society. In the midst of the world’s horrific mess she would point to hope and remind us that political movements should not always reduced to the worst elements amongst them. Wrestling with the contradictions, the presence of antisemitism amongst a few members of a movement calling for liberation, the practice of Islamophobia coming some others who claim to speak for peace, is an opportunity to grow our souls. Focus too narrowly on just one element of the movement, she would warn, and we risk descending into spiritual narcissism.

Maybe you disagree with all I have just said. That is alright. Our congregation is a space for disagreement about religion, politics, and even the answers to our questions about the nature of the good life. But mention of our congregation, leads me to some brief concluding reflections about why I love being a parish minister and love serving the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. From people like Grace, I learned that real social change comes from combining the work of institutional and personal transformation. Unitarian Universalist congregations are a vital space for doing so. Here at First Unitarian Universalist we are committed to both the work of growing our souls and making our city and our society a better place. The opportunity to serve a community with such an understanding is a blessing. And the longer I have been here the more I have appreciated Grace’s statement that “The most radical thing I ever did was to stay put.” There is something powerful about getting deeply embedded into a community. The better you understand it the more you see the possibilities before you.

But this sermon and this service is not about me. It is about the great spiritual activist Grace Lee Boggs. She understood that life is just a chance to grow our souls. And in the hopes that all of our souls have grown a little bit more through our time with her–and our consideration of her belief in two-sided transformation–I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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