All Souls Kansas City

February 24: “One Molecule of Mercy” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

A couple of weeks ago, I accepted Butch Murphy’s challenge to explore the work of the Roman poet Lucretius, in his lengthy philosophical verse about The Nature of Things. This is a thing that philosophers do, and religious-type people too – we try to figure out the truest answers we can find to the most basic and important questions we can manage to ask. One of those questions that we keep coming back to over the centuries and the millennia is this one: What is the world – the universe, life itself, this whole shebang that we are part of – what is it like? What is it we are dealing with here, at its most basic level? Lucretius, and his teacher Epicurus, said that you could picture it as an infinite number of teeny-tiny particles falling like rain through a completely empty void, and occasionally randomly bumping into each other. Remember that?

This morning I want to invite us to explore another, very different kind of proposed answer to that question. A suggestion not from more than two thousand years ago, but from an author who looks to be about half my age, from a magazine article published almost two months ago. Alexandra Rowland is a writer of fantasy fiction, and a blogger and podcaster, who suggests that the universe we inhabit as human beings consists of stories. What determines our experience of living is the stories that we tell, and that we believe, about ourselves and others. This is what the human brain has been designed for, after all; it is our one evolutionary gift. Not faster muscles or sharper claws or stronger venom, but pattern recognition and narrative structure; that’s our specialty, and it’s obviously powerful. It has allowed us to carve out this enormous ecological niche for our species, the very hugeness of which may quite possibly be our doom.

As we consider both the ecological and political prospects of the current era, there has arisen a new genre of dystopian narrative, in science fiction, in graphic novels, and in movies, that is being described as ‘grimdark.’ These are stories of post-apocalyptic worlds, either on this planet or elsewhere, in which there is neither trust, nor any basis for trust, in human cultural relations. Rowland puts it this way: “The essence of grimdark is that everyone’s inherently sort of a bad person and does bad things, and that’s awful and disheartening and cynical. It’s looking at human nature and going, ‘The glass is [always] half empty’.” This is the world of hopelessly corrupt political and financial power, of intractable white male privilege, of irremediable environmental collapse, of inevitable betrayal even where care or good intentions may have once existed. It is the sort of society in which mutual suspicion is the norm, where moral ideals are folly and gullibility is always fatal; where everyone is seeking to exploit everyone else. It is the Gilead of the Handmaid’s Tale, the Kings Landing of Game of Thrones, the Panem of the Hunger Games. It is Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, where
… the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

It is Thomas Hobbes’ view of our essential nature, in which human life is inevitably ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ It is a perspective that is indeed both grim, and dark.

Over against this sort of narrative there are two opposing views. The one that is probably most familiar and comfortingly traditional to folks like you and me is called noblebright. Says Rowland:

Noblebright is about goodness and truth and vanquishing evil forever, about a core of goodness in humanity. It’s most of the Arthurian legends, the Star Wars original trilogy, or Narnia. In noblebright, when we overthrow the dark lord, the world is saved and our work is done. Equilibrium and serenity return to the land. Our king is kind and good and pure of heart; that’s why he’s the king.

That’s a story for you.

[In this story,] when you fight, you win. When you believe in something good and noble, you prevail. People have an essential core of goodness in them. People will change their minds, will learn, will grow, will repent, will earn forgiveness. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The dragon can be slain. The great evil can be obliterated from the world. Love always wins.

It’s all very nice.

You ask noblebright, “What’s the point?” and the answer is, “Vanquishing the great evil. Finishing the work. Saving the world. Winning.”

The problem with the noblebright paradigm is that there is no real, permanent ‘happily ever after;’ the world never remains saved, and the emperor always turns out to be missing at least a few articles of clothing. Says Rowland:

The work is never finished. The work will never be finished. There will never be a nice, comfortable utopia where we can rest on our laurels and sip strawberry daiquiris by the pool and trust that now things are Fine and we can all relax.

There’s no such thing as winning forever. Evil cannot be vanquished, only beaten back for a day or two, and then it trickles back in, like water seeping through the cracks in a dam.
Utopia is not a stable system. It doesn’t last. The best we can hope for is five minutes, an hour.

The world has never been nice. The world has always and only been a never-ending, Darwinian struggle for survival, an “empire of unsheathed knives and hungers,” clawing at each other and climbing over each other in a mad riot, pushing our boots down into someone else’s face to heave ourselves up a little higher or risk being trampled ourselves.

But once in a while, the people toward the middle of the heap manage to look down and see the mass of wretched bodies below, the base of the pyramid that’s supporting them, and for a moment, they see the instability of their own position, that their pyramid isn’t built on solid ground but on human flesh and human pain. For a moment, they see, and the illusion of niceness is wrenched away from them, and they weep — but still, still not for the people below them whose suffering has gone on so long. They weep like children over the teddy bear that’s been snatched out of their hands. They weep only because the world suddenly isn’t as nice as they thought, and it’s hard to deal with that. You see others’ pain only when it’s gone on for eternities already. It is not new—the world has always been on fire. We have always been monstrous to each other.

Rowland quotes Terry Pratchett’s 1996 novel Hogfather: “Take this universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some . . . rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”

But, she says, when you stop believing that there is even an atom of justice, or a molecule of mercy in the world? What’s the point then? How do you go on without that?

The other possible narrative frame is what Rowland terms, hopepunk

‘Hopepunk says, ‘No, I don’t accept that. Go screw yourself: The glass is half full.’ Yeah, we’re all a messy mix of good and bad, flaws and virtues. We’ve all been mean and petty and cruel, but (and here’s the important part) we’ve also been soft and forgiving and kind. Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.” Of resistance.
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What do we do when our hands are empty, when our warm cloaks are gone, when we look around and see how big the world is? When we see how helpless and insignificant we are, how the rest of the world isn’t even particularly cruel or evil, just . . . mediocre? Complacent?

If there are gods watching over us, please, please deliver us from complacency.
And if there aren’t, if we’re all alone in the dark and our candles are guttering: What do we do? How can we go on?

What’s the point?

Well, besides being monstrous to each other, there’s another thing us humans are particularly good at.

Have you ever started a fire with two sticks?

Have you ever looked up into the night sky and thought that perhaps it wouldn’t really be so hard to count the stars?

Have you ever built a library in Alexandria?

Have you ever walked to the North Pole?

How do you do it? How do you manage when the task before you is enormous and impossible? How do you go on?

Here’s how you start a fire with two sticks: sheer, simple, bloody-minded obstinacy.

That’s how you count the stars, build the library, and go to the North Pole. That’s how you hold the story even when it’s unraveling in your hands.

You grit your teeth, and bear the pain, and keep going: One star at a time, one brick at a time, one step at a time.

You can do a lot when you decide to be a stubborn bastard who refuses to die.

It’s not about glory or noble deeds; it’s not about an end result because there is no end. There’s always a tomorrow and when the sun rises again, we’ll still have a dam holding the water back. For now. But entropy is real, and dams must be maintained, and it takes all of us to do it, and it’s done by linking arms with the people next to you, by building a community with deliberate intent. The fight itself is the point.

It’s about how the first step to slaying a dragon is for one person to say, probably drunk in a bar somewhere, “I bet it can be done, though.”

It’s about being kind merely for the sake of kindness, and because you have the means to be, and giving a crap because the world is (somehow, mysteriously, against all evidence) worth it, and we don’t have anywhere else to go anyway.

It’s about digging in your heels and believing that one single atom of justice, one molecule of mercy does exist somewhere in the mindboggling vastness of the universe—believing in that, even if for no other reason than screw you, buddy. I do what I want and this, this is what I want; this is the world I want to live in: One where the atom of justice exists, even if I’ve never seen it myself, even if I’ll never see it.
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It’s about doing the one little thing you can do, even if it’s useless: planting seeds in the midst of the apocalypse, spitting on a wildfire, bailing out the ocean with a bucket. Individual action is almost always pointless. Hope and strength comes from our bonds with each other, from the actions we take as a community, holding hands in the dark.

Nobility and righteousness look really stylish and cool, and they keep you safe from criticism (how nice!), but they’ll tire you out.

The night is dark and the fight is long and there are no knights in shining armor waiting in the wings to slay the dragon at just the right moment of dramatic tension. So be spiteful. Be petty. Be rude. I don’t know. Do whatever you have to do, as long as you’re doing something, as long as you’re taking hold of the world around you in a real way and yanking it in the direction of Slightly Less Terrible. Armchair ethicists wonder, “If a man has a gun to your friend’s head, isn’t you hurting him just as bad as him hurting your friend?” No, it isn’t. Also, what’s wrong with you? Punch the man with the gun. Save your friend.

We want the world to be better—kinder, more just, more merciful. We still yearn toward noblebright, toward an honest and desperate belief that love conquers all. Except, when the other guy has more guns and fewer moral objections than we do, it doesn’t.

Give a damn about the world around you, about the people around you, about the people who aren’t around you, about the people on the other side of the world, for no other reason than because they’re people, who love their children, who laugh, who dance, who kiss, who cry.

We forget, sometimes, that we have knives too in this empire. That we can unsheathe them, that we can turn our blades to the defense of an atom of justice and a molecule of mercy that might not even exist—except . . . except for where we make them exist, in the hands we hold out to each other, and in the shelter we offer even when we ourselves are exhausted, footsore, and filthy – and complicit – with the wolves at our doors.

There are no heroes and no villains. There are just people. That’s hopepunk: Whether the glass is half full or half empty, what matters is that there’s still water in that glass. And that’s something worth defending.

I don’t know about you, but growing up in this liberal religious tradition, I was raised on noblebright – I suspect we all were. On the idea that the day would come when we would reach the promised land, and everyone would recognize the natural laws of justice and compassion written on their hearts, and a world of sustainable goodness would commence. A world of peace. The beloved community. Greed and ignorance and cruelty would be defeated, finally, for good. That was the story we told each other, the story we wanted to be part of; the story we thought was well underway, with just a few details yet to be cleared up.

I have preached that narrative – how could I not? It was the story I had learned, the story I told myself. And if the only alternative is resignation to the grimdark universe, who wouldn’t cling to the noblebright promise of moral heroes, and a golden age to come? I could spend a whole sermon, or more, unpacking Christianity along these lines. The passion of Jesus, his phony trial before corrupt authorities, “give us Barrabas,” the agonies of the cross – that’s grimdark. The shiny angels announcing resurrection from death, and all of us waiting for the second coming in glory to inaugurate the kingdom of god – that’s noblebright. You know what’s hopepunk? The last supper. This bread, this wine, these friends; the community we build that maybe survives even betrayal and denial and suffering and sorrow. All the while giving the finger to Rome. The promise that every time a few of us gather like this, that one molecule of mercy is somewhere not far away. Close enough to keep us going.

Abraham talked god down from fifty righteous people to ten, but even that was too much, evidently – the cities were still destroyed. The cities are always destroyed, if not by god’s wrath, then by the bombs of empire, or the plague, or the nuclear fallout, or the rising seas. Grimdark is easy, like cynicism, and the complacency of despair. Noblebright summons us to look for righteous heroes, and final solutions. That’s a dangerous, combustible proposition, it appears to me; prone to corruption, idolatry, and pious violence, if history is any indication. Hopepunk calls us instead to acts of faith; to personal moments of commitment and connection and resistance that create tiny atoms of justice, and molecules of mercy, floating randomly on the tides of monstrousness. Hopepunk calls us to weep not only for our own comforting innocence lost, but for the actual pain of real people that predates our awareness by ages. It calls us to use the resources we have – all our wits, all our tools, all our powers – to yank the world in the direction of Slightly Less Terrible. Hopepunk teaches us not to wait for some golden age when we shed our evolutionary heritage, and the human conditions resolves into some endless harmony, but rather to use the capacities we come with, the built in options of resilience that we already have, to produce the softly illuminated moments of care and kindness and truth telling that add one molecule of mercy to this place.

The poet WH Auden understood hopepunk, back in 1939, when he concluded one of his best known works with these words:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

And let the people say, Amen.