Service: “A Time of Awakening(?)” with Ministerial Intern Rebecca Gant
Click here to start at sermon one.
Click here to start at sermon two.
SERMON- Part 1
I’m going to talk about hope today, but not yet. I’m angry. I’ve been angry for a while now.
I spent this past summer as a student chaplain in the St. Luke’s health system. Part of my assignment was leading a spirituality group and seeing patients individually in the behavioral health unit. That unit is a safe place for patients who are in danger of hurting themselves or others. They can come for a short time and have a respite from their lives while they figure out what’s next. As I led the groups and met with individuals, I heard story after story of people– usually women– who have survived sexual assault as children and as adults at the hands of adults– usually men. They shared with me how that assault had affected their rest of their lives, ending with a stay in the hospital. Story after story came out, and the patients asked me questions that I could not answer. Why did this happen? Why didn’t my parent protect me? Where was God in all of this?
I spent most of my summer feeling helpless. I had the same questions, and the best I could do for the patients was to let them know that someone cared. But more than feeling helpless, I felt furious. I was furious on behalf of these patients and the people I love who have also been assaulted. Why did this happen? Why don’t adults protect children? Why doesn’t our society protect women? And the abusers? I suspect that many of them had also been abused as children at the hands of an adult, and that they were just continuing the cycle.
This year has brought other events worth being angry about. We have seen families separated at the border and children in cages. We have seen the effects of our mistreatment of our earth, with stronger storms, wildfires, drought and flooding. We have seen the continued killing of unarmed people of color, and the continued failure to bring their killers to justice. Gun violence rages on with shootings in the schools in Parkland Florida, Santa Fe, Texas, and in workplaces in Maryland and California. And our government- which is supposed to be for the people- is, instead, working mostly for the richest and most privileged among us. It’s discouraging and it’s infuriating.
And this past week, we as a country have been seeing the apocalypse that Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber describes happening before our eyes, as the hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment have uncovered more of the misogyny that exists in our society.
In the last few years, in addition to the festering sore of misogyny, we are also seeing more clearly the infections of sexism, homophobia, White Supremacy, ableism, etc– the intersecting systems of oppression at work in society. I think it’s most apparent to those of us who have been working to get “woke”– because getting woke means that you can no longer pretend that you don’t know about oppression and its effects on all of us… and the part you play in supporting those oppressive structures. Our faith encourages us to face our part in those structures and to find ways to dismantle them. We are all in this together.
As more of us wake up and see systemic oppression, we are less willing to remain silent about it. We are seeing that Something Has To Change– and we are understanding more clearly that we are the ones we have been waiting for. More and more of us are rising up, making our voices heard in marches, in letters, and calls to our representatives, by attending meetings and wearing our t-shirts and buttons.
This fresh waking up and speaking up of people working for liberation has an effect. It is causing the forces of oppression also to wake up– and to push back. This push-back is directed at the people who are peeling back the lid, and at the original targets of these oppressive systems.
The waking up of seekers of justice is a wonderful thing, yet the push-back that results is discouraging. An endless escalation of efforts on both sides doesn’t get us anywhere but more divided.
And yet, I have hope. What if– what if– what seems like an ever worsening situation is really just a natural, typical response to the experience of losing expected rewards–what behavioral psychologists would call an extinction burst on a system-wide level?
In behavioral psychology terms, an extinction burst may occur when the usual reward for certain behaviors stops being given. When the reward can no longer be expected, the person subject, instead of decreasing the behavior, temporarily increases it. In addition, the subject may try new behaviors and/or emotional responses and aggressive behavior to get that reward.
In our society, a group of people who have enjoyed the benefits of privilege in their skin color, gender, socioeconomic class, or other identity might be looking around and seeing that their days of being the “top dog” are numbered. Or, at the very least, they might see that they might have to share some of the benefits they’ve received as a privileged group. That group’s benefits are being “taken away”– it’s understandable that this might result in some new behaviors, some emotional responses, or even some aggression. Sound familiar? This idea- that what we are seeing is actually an extinction burst gives me hope.
Or if the behavioral psychology approach doesn’t work for you, try this one on. I have also found hope in the ideas expressed in the book titled Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. This is a book about how our world- our environment, our economy, and our society– got into the mess it is in today and it gives us some guidance for how we can fix it.
The book recounts three stories– three ways to conceive of this moment in time. They call the first story “Business as Usual.” In Business as Usual, economic growth is essential for prosperity, nature is a commodity to be used for human purposes, promoting consumption is good for the economy, the central plot is about getting ahead, so that the problems of other peoples, nations, and species are not our concern. It’s modern life in the United States. This is a path that we in the US have been heading down for quite some time, and with global media, other countries are lining up to do the same– and the stress we are putting on the planet is beginning to show.
The consequence of continuing with Business as Usual are many, but the greatest is that situation described in another story of our time– which the book calls “The Great Unraveling.”
The hallmarks of the Great Unraveling are economic decline, resource depletion, climate change, social division and war, and mass extinction of species. These are the two stories we exist in today in the early twenty-first century. Not all people live in the same story- you probably know someone whose worldview means that they live in a different story than you do- and it’s possible that you spend your day moving between Business as Usual and The Great Unraveling.
When the frightening hallmarks of the Great Unraveling come up, most people have one of two responses– Either that it’s not that bad,– or that it’s so bad, and the world is so far gone, that there is no turning back.
But there is another group– and maybe you’re among them– that believes that there is a third story and this is where the hope comes in– a story of a deliberate turn-around, a correction, a careful easing down. The authors call this third story The Great Turning, and say that it is “the essential adventure of our time. It involves the transition from a doomed economy of industrial growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world.” And they assert that “this transition is already underway,” even though we may not be able to see clear evidence.
In the book that the All Souls board is reading together called Emergent Strategy, the author Adrienne Maree Brown refers to this idea, saying “We are all the protagonists of what might be called the great turning, the change, the new economy, the new world”
Michelle Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times just this week that echoes some of these ideas:
SERMON – Part 2
Vincent Harding’s image of a river streaked with blood to represent humanity’s yearning toward freedom is a powerful one. And the idea that what seems like an increase in hatefulness and injustice is actually the resistance to a new world that is struggling to be born– that’s hopeful.
None of the thinkers I’ve referred to so far have said that this new world will come into being without effort. Joanna Macy says that we can bring about the Great Turning by acting in alignment with our values, supporting new structures, and — this is key– learning new perspectives.
Adrienne Maree Brown in Emergent Strategy says that it is the small things that make the big things- that what we practice on a small scale helps create what happens in the larger world.
Michelle Alexander says that bringing the new world into being won’t happen through our resistance, but instead will require us to end oppressive systems and re-imagine the meaning of justice in America.
I’m sure that many of us in this room have been and will continue to do the work of re-imagining the meaning of justice in America. And that, most of all, gives me hope. Knowing that people like us are giving their time and passion to the work and learning new ways of thinking and acting– is comforting. When we’re woke to the realities of systemic oppression– to the fact that whether we are the oppressors or the oppressed– that these systems diminish all of us– we know we can no longer keep the lid on. We must peel it back. And peel we will– because all of us are worthy of that work. All of our pain and all of our struggle. All of our passion and all of our work for liberation. We all matter. And each of our small acts of kindness, compassion and caring adds up to a force strong enough to push this new world we long for into being.
The song that Shelby is going to close with is from the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary made in 2006 with former vice president Al Gore. The film posits that we can turn the environmental crisis around, and ends with these words:
Each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each one of us can make choices to change that …The solutions are in our hands, we just have to have the determination to make it happen.
As you listen to the song, if you’re exhausted from witnessing the apocalypse this week, please just take a break– breathe and enjoy the music. We are all in this together and we need you to be well.
But if you have some energy, I want to encourage you to think about what new steps you might be able to do to help birth a new world — ways you want to wake up; ways that you want to speak up, show up. If you have the energy, those of us who are worn out need you. There is hope- and each small action toward our collective liberation matters.
And after we all rest and gather ourselves, we can wake up, shake up, speak out, move… and work to bring a new world– the Beloved Community– into being. May it be so.