All Souls Kansas City

“Immunities,” October 22, 2017, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

I want to propose that what we do, right here in this religious movement, and this very church community, is to try to build those immunities.  If we are effective in what we are attempting, both in our religious education program, and in our mission and covenant work as a whole, we would make the work of white power skinhead recruiters very difficult, and their successes rare.  Let me suggest five immune system building blocks that are part of our ongoing implicit curriculum for our work together.

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Once upon a time, it seemed to me that perhaps all we really needed to do was to wait.  Racism, that toxic combination of ignorance, prejudice, and cultural habit, was an artifact of history, afflicting primarily people who grew up before my time.  Before Martin Luther King and the freedom riders.  It was a disease of old folks; my parents’ generation.  Those whose hearts were so hardened they could not be changed would die off in due course, and then the reasonable people would have the nation, and the world, to ourselves.  Salvation by succession, I guess you might call it.

There is still some hope to be found in demographics, apparently.  All the trends seem to suggest that within a couple of decades, America will be a place where people whose only racial identification is white will be in the numerical minority.  Which doesn’t mean that they won’t still be running pretty much everything, and South Africa did demonstrate that a sufficiently determined minority can hold onto power for a long, weary while.  But it is something of an advantage in a democracy, to outnumber the other side.  Also it looks like the millennials are far more global in their education, recreation, and friendships than any previous generation, and many of them are perhaps more at ease connecting across ethnic difference.

But before we take too much solace from the inevitability of succession, what is with the skinheads?  The neo-nazis, with their Hitler tattoos and their simmering violence, and their endless, fathomless hatred?  There are certainly the middle-aged and older folks among them, harking back to the glory days of the Ku Klux Klan and overt segregation, but the energy – and the threat – seems to be coming from young people.  Teens, and young adults, who have grown up in a world of Colin Powell and Oprah and Barak Obama, who never saw a whites-only drinking fountain.   They are not necessarily the product of conventionally racist households – often their horrified families are appalled and fearful of their child’s transformation.  It is also not uncommon that the parents don’t care that much; like homeless teens, many of these young people have long histories of traumatic abuse and parental indifference.

It would be logical to suppose that the celebration of white identity and fear of black empowerment was a product of the alt-right backlash against progressive political policies, but I suspect that this is not actually the case.  I see more a marriage of convenience between the elite power-protecting of the think tanks and the pundits, and the adrenaline-fueled rallies of the gun-toting young zealots.  They feed on each other, but in reality their motivations and their goals are rather different.  We traditional liberals and progressives tend to think in terms of policy agendas and political interests; we generally try to marshal our cost/benefit analysis and our reasoned arguments to show that most people would be better off if our candidates were elected and our proposals were implemented.   We assume that the majority of voters are rational actors who can be persuaded by appeal to the facts, and to common sense.  But the more that I watch, and listen, and read about the right wing culture of racial hatred, the more I realize that we are missing the point politically.  And I wonder whether our religious community may not have a much more powerful message than any would-be legislator, if we can just figure out how to communicate it effectively.  Arguments based on reason and intelligence may not help us that much, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to have a reasoned and intelligent strategy to address the threat of what Christian Picciolini calls “romantic violence.”

Let’s start with the observation that there is a reason why “culture” and “cult” both have the same linguistic roots.  We might be better served by thinking of the neo-nazi skinhead movement as more like a religious cult than a political advocacy group.  What motivates people to assent to and be loyal to such ideology is an emotional and spiritual appeal far deeper than intellectual interest, which rational considerations will rarely touch.  And in fact, according to those who have done it, leaving that culture behind is akin to leaving intense Christian fundamentalism, or the Amish, or the Unification church, or old-time Mormonism.  It takes significant personal courage, as well as support from those who have walked the path before.   This is the purpose of the non-profit group called Life After Hate, founded by Picciolini and several others who eventually rejected the white power movement that was once the center of their lives.  Not only is Life After Hate reminiscent of other organizations of former members of (fill in the blank), it also resembles a kind of on line recovery group for addicts.   I would argue, and I think that the Life After Hate folks would agree, that hate itself is a kind of drug, that numbs personal inner pain and hunger, and gives rise to short bursts of euphoric group fusion.

It begins with a desperate need for belonging, and a quest for identity and power.  Adolescents, of whatever age, who have not yet found a place for themselves in the world, and who yearn for adventure and glory, are vulnerable to the recruitment techniques that are as old as our tribal instincts.  To be part of an in-group, with special knowledge of the “real” reasons for their day to day struggles, and the simple, coherent “truth” behind a confusing and overwhelming world, is deeply comforting.  To be one of a small cohort whose mission is to defend the sacred and protect the innocent offers an irresistible identity and ego trip.  And to recognize a secret “enemy” on whom to project all one’s own inner doubt and shame, and then remorselessly destroy, satisfies a toxic psychological temptation that most of us have experienced in some form.  For Sammy Rangel, traumatized by a childhood filled with abuse and violence, the opportunity to give a coherent direction to his rage, to be powerful rather than powerless, and to find acceptance and belonging, led him to embrace the idea of being a warrior for his race.  Arno Michaels, another founder of Life After Hate, puts it this way:

As a teenager I got into the punk rock scene which for a while was the ultimate outlet for my aggression. But, like any other addiction, my thrill seeking needed constant cranking up, so when I encountered racist skinheads I knew I’d found something far more effective. I joined up for the kicks and to make people angry.  I was also enamored with the idea of being a warrior, and as a skinhead, here at last was my chance to be a warrior for a magnificent cause – to save the white race! I truly believed white people were under threat of genocide at the hands of some shadowy Jewish conspiracy. It made total sense to me, probably because nothing else in my world was making sense.  So I assumed an identity where all that mattered was the color of my skin.

Michaels’ parents were alcoholic and emotionally destructive, though not physically violent.  Picciolini’s parents and grandparents were caring but culturally clueless; from within their tightknit immigrant community, they could not see the loneliness and isolation of his Midwest American childhood.  Both appalling parents and parents who are doing their best can leave their children at risk for the appeal of racialized identity and hatred.  One child out of several in a family may turn this direction, leaving their siblings astonished, disgusted, and alarmed.  So it may not be all that helpful to look for causes on an individual basis, although recovery is apparently a one by one process, with each former skinhead having his or her own narrative about moments of enlightenment and self-recognition.

The epidemiologists tell us that there are always more pathogens in the environment than there are opportunities for them to manifest as disease in any given population.  If your goal is the health of the group, it is much more effective to strengthen the collective immune system than to try to create surroundings that are completely toxin-free.  Eliminating the germs is almost impossible; better to nurture the inherent health of the organisms to fight off infection.  I suspect that this is true for the social and moral health of communities as well as physical health.  Trying to keep young people who hunger for status, adventure, belonging, and a righteous cause, from hearing the siren song of white power is probably useless.  It may even be counterproductive, by adding the lure of forbidden fruit.  So, what are the immunities that we might try to create together, that would make it harder for that particular virus concept of neo-nazi white power to find a host in our society, in our children?

I want to propose that what we do, right here in this religious movement, and this very church community, is to try to build those immunities.  If we are effective in what we are attempting, both in our religious education program, and in our mission and covenant work as a whole, we would make the work of white power skinhead recruiters very difficult, and their successes rare.  Let me suggest five immune system building blocks that are part of our ongoing implicit curriculum for our work together.

The first is belonging.  No matter what is going on in a child’s family life or school experience, here in this place we want them to matter, to know that they are part of the community.  We do not tolerate bullying, teasing, or abuse of one another.  We take turns.  We make room.  We share.  We have an identity and a history as Unitarian Universalists; we are proud of our story, and each one of us is a vital part of it.  Together we learn to practice the skills of being in community, of welcoming each other, of taking the risks to be known in our uniqueness.  Belonging is such an essential human hunger that we will embrace almost any toxic message to find it.  If we can offer it here, to both children and adults, there will be no need for anyone to seek belonging that is predicated on enemies and hatred.

The second element of the immune system we are building is acceptance.  In this community we learn that people are not all the same, and that difference is good.  Appearances are different, abilities are different, ideas are different.  The fact that someone else is not just like you does not make you better than them, or worse.  It might mean you can learn something from each other.  Another part of acceptance is understanding that everybody makes mistakes, and we can all be wrong sometimes.  We learn to say, “I’m sorry,” and “How can we make things right?”  We accept that in a democratic community, I won’t always get my own way, but I do get to say what I think.  Over and over again, this is what the recovering skinheads marvel about – how could they have missed such a simple truth, that difference is okay?  We try to make sure that everyone our community touches will receive that notion clearly.

The third element is purpose.  When people think that their lives are pointless and they are powerless to change anything, the idea of making a difference, even through pain and destruction, is irresistible.  We all long to do something important, especially young people who are just figuring out what is possible.  As UUs, we want our children, and all of us, to understand how much good any of us might do in the world; how we could transform life for others through our creativity, our careful work, or our caring presence.  In this community, we remind ourselves of what is happening all around us, and how we can be of service.  We also celebrate the stories of people who have contributed to justice, or helped to reduce suffering – who have made the world a better place, just like those who started the Life After Hate web site.  Even through doubt and confusion, we affirm that each of us can find meaningful purpose.

A fourth dimension of immunity that we need to consider is adventure.  How do we offer our young people – and all of us – opportunities for meaningful risk on behalf of our faith?  Committed activism can be thrilling without degenerating into violence, and there are plenty of places to put your life on the line for principles that might do good rather than harm.  We all need ways to test ourselves, and find out what we are made of; to discover courage, fortitude, or energy that we didn’t know we had.  Part of what makes it hard to leave the skinhead culture behind, even when you no longer believe its underlying message, is that the adrenaline rush of incitement to hatred and violence is addictive.  We can’t exactly replicate that in our religious community, but we could think about the challenges of witness, solidarity, and service against which we might risk measuring ourselves and our convictions.

Finally, perhaps the greatest inoculation against any form of addiction or manipulation is self-awareness.  The folks who share their stories on Life After Hate consistently report that it was when they began looking at and thinking about the person they had become, that they began to question what they were doing, and what it was doing to them.  As they reflected on what had lured them into the white power movement, they became aware of their feelings of loneliness, rejection, alienation, and meaninglessness, and how the skinhead culture served to assuage these hungers, but did not actually satisfy them in a wholesome way.  Usually with the help of friends and mentors, they made the difficult journey of discovering that what they really craved was community based on love, respect, and mutuality, rather than shared enemies.  Once they were able to see and accept their own vulnerability, they felt less need to hurt others.  The ability to see ourselves as we appear to the world, with both objectivity and compassion, is a skill that can continue to grow for as long as we live, no matter what theology we may adopt.  It is the foundation of wisdom, and spiritual maturity.

I can’t help thinking that if more children and young adults, and more people in general, could experience these practices of immunity – belonging, acceptance, purpose, adventure, and self-awareness – just as we do right here, that neo-nazi skinhead culture would have less appeal, and less power.  Which is one of many reasons why it matters that this congregation and others like it continue to offer a vibrant presence in our cities and throughout this nation.

More than two centuries ago, the former ship captain John Newton reflected on the process that had led him to exchange his profane, abusive, and dangerous career in slave trading to become the priest of a small and largely illiterate Anglican parish.  He had survived desperate storms and potential shipwreck, he concluded, and come to denounce slavery and work for its abolition in Britain, not because he deserved a different kind of life, but because god had opened his eyes to the truth about himself.  The folks at Life After Hate say much the same thing.  As Arlo Michaels puts it, “desperate and lost human beings pretending to be more human than everyone else.  All along pretending that we couldn’t be farther apart, when in fact we have everything in common.  Everything from utter wrongness to saving grace.”  And when you turn away from hate, toward that realization, they all say, it is something amazing.