“Mourning for Dreams,” November 13, 2016 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Religion as I understand it – and I mean every great religious tradition of the human race – invariably, if it is authentic and not idolatrous, summons us to the latter project; to build a world that challenges our prejudices and seeks to dismantle our privilege.
Click here to watch from the sermon.
Dearly Beloved, I have no magic words. Like many of you, I am crushed, shocked, sad, angry, afraid, incredulous. This is not the sermon I had intended to preach today, when I had hoped to be celebrating the election of America’s first woman president. That dream, along with several others, has died in a rising tide of fascism and autocracy in this nation. The sudden plunge from confident anticipation to bitter disappointment and despair is difficult to take in, hard to comprehend. I vibrate between stricken sorrow and an alarm so profound it feels like panic. It is not okay that Donald Trump was elected to the presidency of our country, and it is clear that nothing about his administration and policies is going to be okay for the values that our community holds most dear.
I am a citizen, but not a politician by trade. My expertise is in theology, spiritual health, and the practice of covenant community. There needs to be, and no doubt will be, a great deal of analysis offered about how we got to this place, and what in the name of sanity we must do now to defend the foundations of democracy, and I have little if any wisdom to offer on this score at the moment. What I know that is relevant at the moment, is grief. Grieving is a familiar and universal event, an inescapable element in the human condition, and many of its facets are well known. There is denial, anger, bargaining, numbness, disorientation, helplessness, sadness, despair – I am experiencing all of these, and I hear and see that many other people are – many of you are – as well. The truth is that grief transforms us, and when it has run its course, life is never the same – we are never the same – as before. It is a process that can only be short-circuited temporarily, and with damage. The wisdom of ages suggests that the healthiest response is to honor the unfolding of grief, and recognize that its course differs in each individual. There are patterns that can help us understand, but there is no one right way. So let me say clearly: if you are grieving, you have a right to your grief. A certain dream about this country in our lifetimes has died; other dreams will surely come; other dreams are in our hearts even now. But this one was unique and beautiful, powerful and tantalizing in its nearness. I know that I cannot leave it in the archives of unrealized history without a profound sense of loss and sorrow, which will take time to integrate.
One of the painful aspects of grief is the sense of powerlessness that comes with it, reminding us that no matter how great our gifts and virtues, we do not run the universe. Our human minds are set up to argue with this proposition, to try to find a sense of control over events that can give us the perception of safety and ability, and that impulse is the source of much accomplishment and order in our lives. It’s not a bad thing to want, but when that quest runs up against the finitude of death – our own death, the death of those we love, the death of dreams – it can become twisted. It can become a search for someone or something to blame, including if necessary ourselves. A part of our psyche would rather believe that I did something wrong than to believe that I am not in charge. And so it will be tempting, now and in the days ahead, to blame other people – Hillary, or her campaign managers, or the people who nominated her, or Bernie, or third parties, or the electoral college, or the FBI, or your relatives, or Russia, for the loss of this election. It will occur to most of us to wonder, did I make enough calls, knock on enough doors, give enough money? I am thinking that at this stage, most of that blame-casting, or blame-embracing, is the effect of our hunger to think that we actually did control this thing, and my advice is to let go of it. Few of us are in any shape yet to be intelligent about it, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. The useful lessons will emerge over time, and less damage will be done if are sparing with recriminations at present.
There are those who would like to see Mr. Trump given the benefit of the doubt, now that he is the president-elect. The problem with that for me is that there is no doubt in my mind, nor room for any. What I know about this man is what he has told me with his own mouth, his own twitter account, and his own actions. And this is not a political statement, it is a moral and religious one, and I think that I owe you an explanation of what I mean by that. The way I see it is that we have a choice about how we are going to be in this life, and how we are going to choose to expend our energy and loyalty. All our thoughts and words and actions serve to build one or the other kind of world around us – either a world that indulges our prejudices and enables whatever privilege we may have, or a world that challenges our prejudices and tries to dismantle our unearned privilege in the service of a more level playing field. You simply can’t have it both ways; you have to make a choice. Religion as I understand it – and I mean every great religious tradition of the human race – invariably, if it is authentic and not idolatrous, summons us to the latter project; to build a world that challenges our prejudices and seeks to dismantle our privilege. Certainly this is the demand that I encounter in the teaching and ministry of Jesus. Not always in the church that names him god, but always in his own prophetic words and acts.
Donald Trump, as he has displayed himself and given me to understand him, has entirely and happily chosen the other option; to use his considerable resources to build around himself a world that indulges his prejudices and exploits and strengthens his hold on privilege. With great zest, he validates and encourages other people to do the same. I assert that this unapologetic choice disqualifies him for any position of moral leadership, including the presidency, and frees me from any ethical obligation to support his idolatrous efforts. Of course, nothing is more certain than change, and it is always possible that his behavior in office will manifest a commitment to something beyond his own ego and the augmentation of power by the powerful. IF that should happen, I will be heartily glad to reconsider my opinion and potential assent to his leadership, but not until.
This assertion has the effect, I believe, of recommitting myself to those communities and practices that help me to challenge my own prejudices and dismantle my own privileges, which is often painful work, but can from time to time offer unexpected solace. Yesterday, very much against my inclination, which was to stay in bed with the covers over my head, I got myself dressed and headed over to a long-scheduled gathering of the Concerned Clergy Caucus, MORE2, and several other Kansas City faith-based social justice organizations. The BREATHE team, from Aim4Peace, of which I am a member, was tabling at the conference, and I had agreed to a two-hour stint staffing the table. I sobbed and wailed in the car all the way to Hickman Mills – it has taken several days for the tears to break through the numb shock – and tried to pull myself together when I arrived, knowing that it was not in any way the task of my colleagues of color to deal with my distress. And yet, in the end, without even knowing it, they did – especially the women. In my experience, black women ministers have a certain cadence of voice among themselves that is not usually heard when they talk to men, or to white people; it is a voice of trust based on shared experience and expected understanding of much that is implied without being spoken. Several of them spoke to me, and prayed with and for me, in that voice, and by the end of the afternoon, I heard quite clearly in my mind, though no one said these exact words, the phrase “Girl, we been down this road.” This road, of course, hard and dangerous and bitter; no illusions, but also a soul-deep conviction that some of us, at least, will out-last it, and survive. I know what they would have said, if I had been thoughtless enough to demand to know how they survived; they would have talked about Jesus. And so, and so my dearly beloved rational, literal-minded, humanist family, we will continue, in this community, to push against the discomfort of our theological prejudices, because that is what we do; because that is the kind of community we have covenanted to be, one that challenges our prejudices and dismantles our privileges, and because Jesus is a well of hope to my friends who know how to walk a hard road better than I do at the moment.
And let me say one other thing, that I recognized earlier this week, as the waves of panic tumbled me. In the days of our confidence of victory, we all made jokes about moving to Canada, or other parts of the world, if Trump should impossibly become president. And if you feel right now, or come to feel as time goes on, that you are in real danger — if you are a trans person, or a person without the right papers, or a Muslim, or for whatever reason especially vulnerable to a sudden spasm of hate, and you choose to get out before it gets bad, I can’t blame you. But if you have a little money, or citizenship, or white skin privilege, or health care, or education, or testosterone, we need you to dig in now. If you have ever said, to yourself or others, “Hey, I don’t ever use the n word; I get why affirmative action is important; I understand the concept of white privilege; I agree that black lives matter; I didn’t ask to be born white, or male, or cis-gender – what do you want from me??” This, right now, is your answer: you get to stay here and live through whatever is coming, and do what you can to fix this. It’s going to be ugly, I have no doubt. It’s going to be confused and discouraging and dangerous. This, finally, is the price you pay for that invisible knapsack of advantages you have carried all your life; to stick around and use the mechanics of democracy to serve the values that have been repudiated in this election. Part of me wants to run away, because I don’t know what is going to happen; I’m frightened, and there are safer places to be. You must heed your own conscience of course, but I put it to you that this is the debt that people like me can pay for slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow old and new; to clean up the spectacular mess and perhaps carnage that is about to descend upon America. It is privilege that makes it possible to run, and makes it attractive to let others deal with the consequences of a choice we did not agree to. It is a work of justice and conscience, of dismantling privilege, to stay and face into the storm.
Now, the reason to build a world that challenges prejudice and dismantles privilege is not simply that these toxins are unjust to others, but that they are ultimately poisonous as well to ourselves. In order to protect our assumptions and our advantages, we have to turn away from the truth about people outside our own tribe, however we define it, which eventually leaves us ignorant, isolated, and implacably anxious. Whereas, the more active you are in efforts to remediate the damage done by prejudice and privilege, the less you need to hang on to them to maintain your own identity and sanity. Re-ligion, as we have seen before now, is about re-connecting. The more we reconnect with our fellow humans, with our past and future, and our universe, the less we are willing to allow any of them to be damaged in the service of our immediate gratification. The bottom line is, get yourself to church, now more than ever. If
you don’t think you need to be here for yourself, come for your friends; they are going to need you. Or if not that, come for the people who will be looking to our heritage and our covenants for guidance in the uncharted territory we are about to enter. We are going to need each other, seriously. Start now.
And while you are at it, join Planned Parenthood and the ACLU; the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Sierra Club. Have the backs of the people who are going to be on the front lines, doing exhausting work, for the foreseeable future. Give them the only tool they are going to have to work with; make a noise like the majority, since we are.
Finally, I invite you to the realm of the symbolic, and to a new international vocabulary. We are not alone, you know, here in America. Britain and Turkey, all of Europe, are struggling with reactionary, nationalistic, autocratic efforts to subvert the paradigms of democracy and global equality. Since the Brexit vote in June, anti-immigrant rhetoric has flowed freely in England, and there has been a steep rise of threatening speech and hateful incidents among the general public. Ordinary people who are disgusted by such behavior have taken to wearing a safety pin visibly on their clothing. It is intended to indicate that the wearer is a safe person to talk to, sit next to, interact with; that this person will not use ethnic slurs, make threats of harm or violence, harass or ridicule anyone with reference to their apparent ethnic identity. Since the U.S. election, the idea has been spreading here, where we are already seeing an uptick in incidents of name-calling, hate speech, and casual assault against people from all the groups that Trump has spoken of disparagingly. This morning I invite you to consider identifying yourself publically as an opponent of such behavior toward anyone, and if you wish, to let me give you a safety pin at the door as you leave.
To wear a pin is first of all about what you won’t do – tell people to ‘go back to’ wherever; be sexually aggressive to women; use racial slurs or epithets; criticize or make fun of religiously specific clothing; express hostility towards someone’s sexual orientation or gender expression, or mock their disability. These things ought to go without saying in a civil society, but since they don’t, we need to say them. The pin is a signal to others, and a reminder to yourself – myself – about the kind of people we are trying to be. It means that we speak up when someone is being attacked, and if a vulnerable person asks for your help, you give it in whatever way you can. It does not mean that we think we have superpowers, to make the world a totally safe place for everyone in our vicinity all the time, but it does mean that we won’t make things worse for the vulnerable. It might even be the touchstone that gets us over the hump of hesitation when we have the opportunity to intervene in a bad situation. A safety pin is also about holding things together, maybe just barely, as best we are able – about improvising in the presence of brokenness and failure, and trying to keep the fabric of our connections from being completely torn apart. It’s about doing what we can with the resources we have, even when they are far from ideal.
Later this afternoon I will be heading over to William Jewell College for the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council’s annual community Thanksgiving potluck. We will share prayers from many diverse religious traditions, and honor the work of people who strive for understanding and cooperation among the faith communities in this city and across the globe. Gratitude and thanksgiving are hard for me to access just now, and that is precisely why I am glad for this opportunity to be together with my colleagues from a wide theological spectrum. When I least feel it is when I most need it, and it may well be that the most necessary and helpful act just now is to connect with each other; to reinforce whatever holds us together as neighbors, friends, co-workers for a better city.
I am reminded, and I remind you, of what is so easy to forget when compassion and democracy appear to be firmly established. In those days, we may be tempted to think that community is the default condition for human beings, but it is not so. Our default is tribal, protecting the assets and prestige of our personal groups, in a zero sum setting where any one’s gain is necessarily another’s loss. Actual community, the kind that nourishes our best values and our best selves, is an achievement of the human spirit; it doesn’t happen unless we work and sacrifice to bring it about. Like all the best dreams of the spirit, community is fragile. We lost a dream this week, and it will take some time to fully measure all that has been sundered in that loss. We are going to need each other, deeply and desperately, before this is done. Yet the values that we have cherished together up until now remain precious; all the more so for their repudiation by the culture of prejudice and privilege that has prevailed for the moment. We who would be their guardians are going to have to be shrewd and resilient, and above all, connected – in love and loyalty and righteousness; in goodwill and justice and peace. There is no better place than here, and no more urgent time than now.