“As We Were Saying…,” September 24th, 2017, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Religious community is a powerful force, but it has its limitations. It cannot hold back the hurricane winds, or stop the slow grinding of tectonic plates that makes for earthquakes. It cannot change the outcome of past elections, nor prevent the misuse of power by corrupted souls. Some would say that the gods can do these things, but if that is so, we live in a world where they mostly choose not to, and we must cope with the consequences of natural forces, others’ decisions, and our own behavior.
Click here to start at Rev. Gibbons’ sermon.
I have had an opportunity over the past several months to consider once again what religious community is, and what it is for. To a lifelong humanist like myself, here in early 21st century America, coming from a position of white, cisgender privilege, the answer is not necessarily all that obvious. Growing up as a Unitarian Universalist, the first answer I learned was expressed by the title of our hymnbook at the time – Hymns for the Celebration of Life. The purpose of the church was to invite us to pause in the busy-ness of our success and rejoice together. Sure, we all had our share of what we would today call ‘first-world problems’, but we wanted not to lose sight of the conviction that life was precious, that love was essential, that if we stopped to think about it, we all had a lot to be grateful for. And out of that gratitude, we heard a call to share abundance with those who had less, to be helpful to people who had problems more daunting than our own, and to fix promptly the occasional ways in which our democratic society fell a little short of equal justice.
There was a sweetness at the heart of this vision of church that I still cherish, but it came with a heaping helping of unreflective privilege, as well as a denial of the deeper kinds of human pain that were present even from our own positions of good fortune and cultural power. I tend to think that many of my peers who drifted away from the liberal church, without any particular rancor, but finding no urgency to hold them there, simply got nothing compelling out of this experience. Some of them, and some congregations, tried upping the anger quotient of the justice message as a way of accessing more feeling and energy, but this alone was merely a cheap thrill that didn’t last long. It also created a disconnect between the ‘celebrate life’ function and the ‘screw the system’ function that often left the church divided, and uncertain of its true purpose.
There will always be a part of me – and I suspect a part of us all – that resonates to that simple invitation to rejoicing and gratitude. We are alive; the world is at times beautiful; love and kindness and creativity are gifts that we do not earn. To forget these truths is to become crabby and mean-spirited at a very basic level. Surely part of the purpose of church is to help us stay open to that authentic impulse of praise and thanks, and to give it expression in community.
However, the world is other things in addition to beautiful, and there is more to life than middle class American consumer comfort. Even if we weren’t forced to acknowledge that in the 1950s, it has been made abundantly clear these days. The combination of computers and satellites brings all the suffering of the globe into our vision in exquisite detail. We know in advance that Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Donald are coming; we watch the video as they make landfall; we are confronted with the victims of their assorted devastations as the overwhelming grief and tragedy unroll before our eyes. I despair of my helplessness to prevent or to fix any of it. I believe everyone who says, What we really need here is money, and I send it – to the earthquake relief workers, to the ACLU lawyers and the Planned Parenthood doctors, to the sane and principled politicians, to the agencies tending to flooded neighborhoods. I could max out my credit cards and empty my savings account and none of these needs would go away; every little bit helps, but the losses and the suffering are still real. In the face of all this, a religious community that can only invite me to celebrate life and fix everything comes across as hopelessly naive and out of touch with reality.
So I wonder; what else is it? One of the pondering techniques I often use with this kind of question is observation: how do the other entities that identify themselves as religious communities answer this challenge? What resources of enduring wisdom do they offer to their adherents? They do encourage both celebration and generosity; no difference there, but that’s not the only thing. There are two other functions that many religious communities understand themselves to have during difficult and perilous times, that I invite us to consider from our uniquely pluralist and naturalistic, reason-based perspective. One is memory, and the other is prayer. Don’t panic; I know – it takes some thought to understand the function of prayer as it might be meaningful to humanists like me, but hang in there. I’m going to take a swing at it, and see if there is some insight we can embrace. You will let me know if I connect with what is real for you.
But let’s begin with memory – the particular kind of memory that is specific to religious community. The theologians have a fancy word for this: an-amnesis, they call it, from the same Latin stem as ‘amnesia’; an-amnesis is the deliberate act of not-forgetting; the ritual insistence that memory must not be allowed to die. The affirmation that Black Lives Matter, for example, is act of anamnesis; it deliberately recalls to mind the stories of those people of color who have been victims of unjust laws, oppressive policing, corrupt judicial process, and hate crimes. Religious community exists because stories are part of what makes us human, and there are certain stories that if we forget, we become less human than we might be. In the Christian community, the story of Jesus is like that; both his life and teaching, and the manner of his death, remind us of vitally important truths about life, integrity, suffering, generosity, and hope. To be true to your ideals is a risky thing, and there is no guarantee that your beautiful vision will come to pass, even if you are faithful unto death. And yet, something about that faithfulness may linger, to guide and inspire others to be true to their own dreams of human kinship and justice. Do not forget.
The stories of the ancient Hebrew prophets are like that, too; stories that open up to me far more now than they ever did in the days of when the triumph of the modern Enlightenment seemed assured. Stories of the prophets who called out the nation of the children of Israel, announcing that they had sold their integrity for the illusions of safety, and their covenant promise for the prosperity of a greedy few. They were not rewarded, those prophets; they were ridiculed, and punished, and ignored – but they were not forgotten. Because in the end, the nation was destroyed by greed, and ignorance, and the scheming of the powerful and the suffering of the poor, just as the prophets had warned. In every generation, you will want to forget this. Do not forget.
How are we, in this liberal religious community of ours, to practice anamnesis? What is it that we carry in crucial memory, that together we must not forget? The most important thing, it seems to me, is the vision of a democratic society, with liberty and justice for all. It is the nature of oppression that it wants us to cast this vision aside; to see only a zero-sum game of winners and losers, where we all scramble to be among the handful of victors, to whom belong the spoils. If we lose sight of the principle of inherent dignity and equality before the law, of one person one vote for everybody, of a common good and a shared prosperity, then the forces of tyranny triumph, and winner-take-all becomes the dominant philosophy. Our religious movement arises out of a different understanding; we come together around a different way of thinking and being in the world. It is there in our UU Purposes and Principles; it is there is our congregational covenant and mission. Goodwill, respect, justice, compassion, help. These ideals may be challenged, and despised, and mocked, but we hold on to them, and hold them high. We do not forget.
It is also needful to remember that we are not the first nation to confront the challenges of would-be despots, nor the first generation to go through hard times. We are not, in fact, special snowflakes, and if others have endured before us, we can face into these headwinds now. There have been natural disasters in the past; we know what we have to do to recover, even though it is hard and tedious and costly work. It has been done before; it can be done again, if we are faithful to our neighbors in need. We have had willfully ignorant leaders and waves of popular prejudice before, too; we must remember that it is our example of respect, compassion, and embrace of diversity, much more than any of our reasoned arguments, and far more than any self-righteous resort to violence, that will be persuasive in the long run. There are no doubt many moments when it would be much more gratifying to ignore this truth, and indulge our impulse to punch someone, but together we do not forget.
It is vital to remember not only the past, but the future as well. As David Brooks points out, what happens after the Trump administration, will be determined by what fills the vacuum that he has demonstrated. There is no going back to the blind supremacies of the white western European cultural hegemony; we must become either conscious oppressors, or advocates and allies for a new standard of awareness, equality, and inclusion. All that we do prepares the world that our descendants will inherit. The Deist sage Thomas Paine once offered this entirely Humanist prayer: “I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, that my children may live in peace.” Religious community requires us collectively to preserve the past; not only for our own purposes, but as a resource for those who come after us, so that our trouble might be their wisdom. There is always the impulse to hide our struggles, to push away our discouragements and failures; in religious community, we bequeath the memory of both our achievements and our inadequacies, because both offer valuable lessons. We do not forget.
Finally, our practice of anamnesis urges us to honor and to emulate those among us who find ways to resist the forces of violence, corruption, and greed. We sing their songs; we repeat their messages; we take inspiration from their actions. Even when they perished, like Sophie Scholl and the other members of the White Rose society; or labored in obscurity, like Ella Baker; or worked in secret, like Rev. Andre Trocme and the citizens of Le Chambon in Nazi-occupied France, or failed to stop the tides of history, like the Dalai Lama, our religious community continues to tell their stories and cherish their examples. We do not forget.
So let’s talk for one last moment about prayer. As some you know, I often find it helpful to think about prayer by way of its mirror image, cursing. After all, I have never met a humanist or religious naturalist who didn’t believe in cursing, no matter how much they objected to the idea of prayer. And there is much about the situations in which we find ourselves just now that could merit some skillful curses. Still, it’s important to have a considered understanding of cursing, because as Brooks mentions, it can get to be addictive. “Trump-bashing has become educated-class meth,” he says. “We derive endless satisfaction from feeling morally superior to him.” That feeling of moral superiority hits the pleasure centers of our brain, a lot like a drug, and it’s easy to want more and more, which can lead to self-righteousness, and destroy our sense of integrity and compassion. Yet there are times when a moral repudiation of something is absolutely needed; when it is the job of religious community to issue a curse. It is our job to be willing to recognize, and to name in public, those actions and ideas, those bargains and claims, that deserve to be condemned. The attempt to trade one person’s suffering for another’s advantage deserves to be condemned, everywhere and always, and should be held accursed. This was the message of the Hebrew prophets, that god’s curse was upon those who abused their power in such a way. It is our job as a religious community to insist upon the enduring difference between truth and lies, between the common good and selfish advantage. Accursed be the attempt to persuade us that the one is just as good as the other. It is our job as a religious community to hold accountable anyone who uses their position and privilege to bring about the destruction of people, or the planet. Let them stand accursed until they shall repent, and change their ways.
Now cursing is always a bit dangerous, partly because it rebounds upon the speaker at the least hint of hypocrisy, as well as because it is easily trivialized for mere annoyances. Hitting your thumb with a hammer doesn’t actually have the moral gravitas to be worthy of an authentic curse, which is origin of the term ‘profanity’. We profane the sacred power of genuine cursing when we use it to express momentary personal outrage. The thing that keeps cursing from dealing in mere spite, I believe, is our capacity to engage its opposite, authentic prayer. By that, I do not mean earnest requests that the universe suspend natural law for our own or others’ benefit. For everyone who prayed for the hurricane to turn away from them and it did, there is another who also prayed to be spared and took a direct hit. There is randomness in the physical world that we do not control; beauty and destruction are both in its path, and as Francis Bacon warned us, Nature in order to be commanded, must be obeyed. Prayer is not magic; there are no spells to stop the storms, or to make the world be otherwise than it is, no matter how hard we wish. It is the essence of cultural privilege to want a quick fix for everything, but that is a false understanding of prayer. Prayer doesn’t actually change anything, any more than a curse does. That is not its purpose; it purpose is to change us.
In some congregations, the version of the covenant that they use proclaims that ‘Service is our prayer.’ Prayer is the affirmation of what is good and beautiful and praise-worthy in the world, and in our humanity, just as cursing is the repudiation of all that deserves to be condemned. Prayer is whatever inspires us to retain our moral decency and expand our human compassion, not out of guilt or fear of reprisal, but because it reflects who we most essentially are. It is saying Yes to the vision of a less traumatic and pain-filled future for the world, as well as Yes to the glimpses of care and creativity and hope that break through into our hearts even now. It is the task of religious community to lift up that vision and that hope; to summon us to measure our lives by its possibilities, rather than by the discouragements of the present moment. Authentic prayer grounds us in something more enduring than celebration; it commits us to a life of generosity, gratitude, and reverence; to an accountability that calls us to withstand crisis, to endure the discomfort of change, even to sacrifice in the service of the highest good and the deepest love we know.
This week our Jewish neighbors begin their observance of the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The days of awe, and the day of atonement. A time to practice anamnesis; to remember the holy demand for justice, the prophets’ anguished curse, and our own complicities with prejudice and privilege. A time to seek right relations, first with our fellow human beings, and through that process, with our own conscience and ideals, with the person we hope to become. Hashivenu Adonai, they pray; Adonai elecha, vena shuvah. Chadesh, yameinu kekedem. A prayer from the book of Lamentations: Turn us toward you again, o holy one; and we will return. Renew us, as in days of old.
Let us remember with intention those of our own spiritual ancestors who came through crisis and oppression and suffering in the past, who sacrificed so that we might learn from both their mistakes and their endurance. Let us return to the paths of integrity and compassion, which are the only true paths, and always have been, no matter what popular charlatans may advocate. Let us live into the community of authentic faith in the largest possibilities of the human spirit, in spite of all our disappointments and struggles, for that is who we have set out to be together, and this is no time to give up.