as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum district campus, August 19, 2018
The course is set on hope.
The course is set on hope.
Our second reading comes from the Russian revolutionary Victor Serge. By turns an anarchist, a Bolshevik, and a dissident Communist–always a radical–he finished his life an impoverished exile in Mexico. He bore witness to many of the grand tragedies of the twentieth-century. He saw his dreams of a democratic socialist republic die in Russia. He watched his friends, his “constellation of dead brothers,” die under Stalin. He was there when Nazism smashed its way across Europe. And after all of that he could write, “the course is set on hope.”
The course is set on hope. Last week, I suggested that the way forward is with a broken heart. If we love the world, we will be wounded, I proposed. And I argued that one of the central tasks of this religious community was the work of healing: healing the wounds in our individual lives, healing the wounds of First Church, and healing the wounds of the world. This morning, I want to talk with you about the context in which this healing work must take place. I want to talk with you about the permanent emergency. And I want to talk with you about the role Unitarian Universalist congregations like this one might play in addressing it.
Rising populist nationalism in Europe; a President in the United States who echoes classic totalitarian language by calling the press “the enemy of the people;” hatred of migrants; bodies washed up on shores; heat drying out the great sequoias of the redwoods; the seemingly unstoppable horror of global warming; increasing inequality… We live in a time of profound economic, ecological, moral, and political crisis. I could turn every sermon into a litany of woes if I followed the injunction to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
What good would a constant litany of despair do you? Or me? Or any of us? We are in midst of a permanent emergency. The task is not to denounce the state of the world. It is find hope amongst all of the heart break. It is find some small honest joy while claiming a healing place in the great disorder of things. It is to say, yes, the world is full of tragedy, the world is in the midst of a permanent emergency, but maybe, just maybe, there is a way forward, there is hope to be found.
Doing so requires that we penetrate deep into the dynamics of the permanent emergency we face. By understanding it we might discover its true causes and stumble our way forward. In our effort to do so, you will forgive me, I hope, if I momentarily divert our sermon from the grave crises of the world to the more banal matter of my move to Houston.
Moving to a new place requires integration into the local governmental infrastructure. I have to get a new drivers license. I have to register my son for school. I have to register to vote. In my attempts to do so, I have come to the conclusion that Texans love their bureaucracy. Why else would you spend so much time with it? Monday, I attempted to get a Texas drivers license. I drove out to the Department of Public Safety on Dacoma. I discovered a line, a line that stretched all the way around the block in the humid, roasting, heat. Without the day to wait, I left, no Texas state id in hand.
Thursday, I took my son to register for Middle School. It took four hours. Four hours. Four hours in an uncomfortable auditorium where the air conditioning was turned so high the wooden chairs shivered. Four hours. Four hours with wiggling middle schoolers, bored, unhappy summer was ending, and anxious about a new school year.
You know, four hours is a long time. It turned my liturgical mind to thinking. “My son and I undergoing a bureaucratic rite of passage,” I thought. First, came the ritual of humiliation. We entered the ritual chamber, the auditorium, and divested ourselves of our individual identity. We became not people with names but numbers. Then we had to wait, and wait, and wait, as the clock ticked in the corner and number, after number, after number, not ours, was gradually called.
We were powerless to enter the community ourselves. We needed the help of a guide who finally summoned us to a folding table, “number 35, number 35.” And we were there, at the threshold, a folder thick of papers that had to be shuffled, stamped, photocopied, indexed, and stapled before our guide ended our ritual of humiliation and let us begin the process of entering the community of middle school.
Next, we endured the ritual of purification. We had to show the school nurse, a helpful, humorous, but harried woman, that my son had the correct vacations–that he had undergone the proper rites of purification–to be fully admitted into the middle school community. She marked this piece of paper. She marked that piece of paper. She deemed my son clean enough to be incorporated into the community. She sent us out of the auditorium into the attendance office. There we underwent one final ritual, the ritual of acceptance.
More pieces of paper were marked. More photocopies were made. My son was given a new name; a seven-digit number. It is how his new community, the Houston Independent School District, will refer to him in its internal documents. “Welcome to Middle School,” the kindly registrar said. We had completed the ritual of acceptance. He was now enrolled in middle school.
This is the permanent emergency. It is the process by which your humanity, and mine, is stripped away. It is the process by which we become not primarily people but numbers wending our way through databases and disheveled stacks of paper. It is the process by which we render our muddy blue ball of plant–the only Earth on which we have to survive–into tables of extractive resources and sums of profits and loss. It is the process by which we learn to treat the people, the animals, the world, around us as things we can use instead of entities with which we are in relation.
The permanent emergency is at the root of all of the emergencies that we, as country, as a human species, collectively face. Let us consider one example: racism. Like all of the ills that face us–the crisis of democracy, the ecological crisis, misogyny–it is a crisis with a history. It comes from somewhere.
Race is not a natural category. It is not something that exists independently in the world. It is something that we humans have created. If we ask any honest scientist, they will tell us that race has little genetic basis in reality. They will tell us that race is a social construction. It is even possible to pinpoint the precise moments when race as we think of it was created. And those moments have everything to do with treating other people as things, as numbers, as tools, rather than as people.
The idea that black people and white people are somehow different races begins on August 8, 1444. That was the day Prince Henry of Portugal arrived at the port of Lagos with a human cargo of 235 slaves. Until that moment human with black flesh had not been described by European thinkers as inherently different or inferior. The arrival of a large group of African slaves to the European continent marks the beginning of European ideas of racial difference. And it comes from the desire of wealthy Europeans to create a category of people whose lives can be reduced to the sums on balance sheets: profits, losses, income, and expenses. It is followed by other moments that we can identify. There is 1662, when Virginia passed a law that race was a legal category someone inherited from their mother. There is 1787, when the United States Constitution was adopted with its infamous three fifths clause. There is the 1857 Dred Scott case, when the United States Supreme Court decided no black person could be a citizen. Each of these instances was an effort to reduce a human life to something other than a human life: a number, a sum, an abstraction to be tracked across ledger sheets.
The permanent emergency… As Martin King told us, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” The permanent emergency will continue until we collectively can effectuate the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented one. This shift is something Unitarian Universalist communities like this one are well poised to address. The first principle of our Association: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The seventh principle of our Association: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Unitarian Universalism was born amid the permanent emergency. Consider our friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our tradition’s great theologians. He wrote his essays as attempts to find a way forward as a person in an increasingly thing-oriented society. Like us today, he lived in a period of profound social displacement, strife, and heart break. Like us today, he objected to much of it. He objected to the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America writing, “Such a dereliction of all faith and virtue, such a denial of justice, and such deafness to screams for mercy, were never heard of in times of peace.” He objected to chattel slavery, telling his audiences, it was as “evil, as cholera or typhus.”
Emerson’s words from yesterday might well be applied to the crises of today. The crimes of the United States government at this state’s border could easily be described in the same terms he used to described equally awful crimes two hundred years ago. But Emerson was wise enough to recognize that the crises of the moment were but expressions of a deeper crisis, a profound crisis, the treatment of human beings as things rather than as people, the alienation of each human soul from the other, the permanent emergency.
Let us briefly turn to the essays he wrote in his attempt to find his way forward as a person in a thing-oriented society. In them he speaks of the sense of dislocation that it is so easy to feel, “Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.” And in them, he offers two solutions to the permanent emergency: to unleash our imaginations and to form real friendships. Calling imagination genius, he tells us, “In the thought of genius there is always a surprise; and the moral sentiment is well called ‘the newness,’ for it is never other.” He advises us on friendship, “When they are real… [friends] are the solidest thing we know.”
Unleashing the imagination, forming real friendships, these I suggest are what provides paths forward in the permanent emergency. What better to pursue in our Unitarian Universalist community? So many of us come to church seeking community and hope. What is hope but the imagination that life can be different than it is? What is community but a place in which to find abiding friendships?
Unleashing the imagination, all the crises that we face were imagined into being. Racism, I suggested earlier, is a product of the imagination. We can imagine alternatives. Indeed, we have imagined alternatives and we have struggled to bring those alternatives into being. The movement to abolish chattel slavery originated when abolitionists imagined society could exist without slavery. The feminist movement began when women imagined that they could live in a society where they were treated as people rather than as objects. Each movement for liberation has begun with a vision that the world can be different.
If you lived in a person-oriented society what would it look like? How would your home be different? How would your neighborhood be different? How would this church be different? How would Houston be different? How would this country be different? How would our world be different? These are questions we can pursue, together, in this religious community.
Forming real friendships, like the imagination, friendships are at the core of moving towards a person-oriented society. When we are friends with someone we focus our universal claim that we respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person on a particular individual. We encounter them not as a thing first but as a person first.
And here, I want to invite you to do something with me. I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor and tell them something. Now, I recognize this is something you might not have done before in your congregation. So, I apologize if it makes you uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable you can always decline my invitation. I invite you to turn to your neighbor and say, “Neighbor, I recognize your inherent worth and dignity.” Try it, “Neighbor, I recognize your inherent worth and dignity.” Recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of particular people, that is where friendship starts. Recognizing the inherent worth dignity of particular people, that is one part of the way we move from thing-oriented society to a person-oriented one.
Imagination and friendship, I will have much to talk with you about both during our time together. But less you think that all of this talk of hope amid the permanent emergency is merely my preacherly penchant for abstraction let me close with a story and an observation.
The story is about Grace Lee Boggs. She was an activist and a philosopher who lived in Detroit for much of the twentieth-century and well into the early twenty-first century. Like Martin King, she understood that the crises we face are not primarily economic, political, or even social, they are moral.
Grace Lee witnessed the desolation of Detroit. She saw the city shrink from two million to less than seven hundred thousand. She lived among the abandoned factories and the burned out homes that stretched block upon block, mile upon mile. And she saw a new vision for the city, a greener vision, a vision in which her task was “planting the seeds of Hope.”
And plant she did. Working with others, she led a movement to regreen the city. She helped organize the creation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of community gardens across Detroit. That ruined block became a vegetable garden. That one was turned over to flowers. Did her work completely transform the city? No, but it did create human connections amid isolation. It led to friendships across racial and economic lines. It generated new community organizations. It enabled thousands of impoverished people who would not otherwise have access to fresh fruit and vegetables to grow their own food. And it began with an act of imagination that vacant lots were not blight but “opportunities to develop urban agriculture and build a new society from the ground up.” It came from a recognition that there is an “inseparable interconnection between our minds, hearts, and bodies.” It originated with a vision that her city could be different than it was.
My closing observation is about Victor Serge. After all of the horrors of the first half the twentieth-century he was able to claim, “The course is set on hope.” Why? Because he experienced real, deep, friendship amid all of it. This gave him the knowledge that, however horrible humans can be to each other, we still retain the ability to recognize the inherent worth and dignity that resides in each of us. And through it all, he remained ever aware of the possibility of the imagination to uncover a better world. The last word of his last poem, found upon him after he died: “dazzling.” Dazzling, the last word of someone who had seen all of the crises of his age. Dazzling, the last word of someone who refused to let his imagination be stifled or forget power of friendship to save our world. Dazzling… the course is set on hope.
So that we may unleash our imaginations, build real friendships, and, together, as a religious community, confront the permanent emergency, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.