All Souls Kansas City

Service: “Something Better Than Hate” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

Okay, so let me go back to Emerson, just for a moment. When he told his Unitarian minister colleagues who were about to graduate from seminary that their church was a hot mess, and it was all the fault of ministers, he said, “Alas for the unhappy [preacher] that is called to stand in the pulpit, and not give bread of life.” And what is that bread? “Your own life,” he replied, “passed through the fire of thought.” It is always tempting, when crisis events are abroad in the land, as they are now, to come to the pulpit and serve that bread half-baked; to turn from thought to the raw immediacy of emotion, both personal and shared. Here, in this covenant community, it is entirely fitting for us all to acknowledge outrage, alarm, disgust, fathomless disappointment, new and remembered trauma, moral anguish, overwhelming grief, bewildering fear, weariness, the implacable determination of renewed resistance in every imaginable form. To this place we bring both crushed hope and ethical demand, as well as confusion, longing to know that we are not alone; yearning to find comfort, and the vision and intention that will give us energy to continue the struggle for the world we believe in. All of that, as well as our doubts and our hesitations and our own guilt – all of it is welcome here. All of you, all that is our life together, is welcome. It is all holy; it is the spirit of life at work in us; the human spirit forever calling us to better justice, to larger compassion, to hold each other in respect and accountability, to conduct our lives with integrity and meaning.

I have felt all of these emotions; cycled through them repeatedly over the course of the past few weeks. It is, as I’m sure many of you have also found, exhausting. I have learned something new about my privilege through this experience, thinking back all the way to the last election. I have realized that I assume that any political event that doesn’t align with my values, and my hopes for the future of our country, is a temporary aberration, some kind of mistake, that is going to be fixed when normal people of good will – the grown-ups – get back in charge. I take it for granted that my view of the common good IS the common good, as anyone with common sense ought to understand. I know now how people more marginalized than I experience this kind of discouragement; not as a temporary setback, but rather as further confirmation of a fundamentally skewed system that can tilt arbitrarily at any moment, in which we have no immediately decisive power. It is a humbling awareness.

It also reminds me that those folks – those queer folks, those disabled folks, those folks of color, those abused, incarcerated, silenced folks – don’t have the luxury of giving up. Don’t have the option of not showing up to the next chapter of the struggle, because it is in their neighborhoods and on their doorsteps and over their living bodies. So who am I to retreat into my privileged shock and despair? Okay, lost that round, and it’s going to make things harder going forward. A lot harder. But where else is there to go but forward? It was hard for the suffragists to get the vote when they didn’t have the vote; it was hard for the kidnapped Africans and their children to win their freedom when they didn’t have the freedom to work for it. Well, I have my freedom and I have my vote – for now, anyway. What should I be whining about? Moreover, demographics are on our side, if not in my lifetime, soon enough. Meanwhile, there is work to be done, children to be raised, gardens to be tended, witness to be borne, protest to be lodged, defiance to be cried, votes to be cast, resistance to be sustained, people to be loved. No one said it would be easy, and if they ever do, we will know it for one more lie.

That’s all I got. That’s as baked as this raw injury on the soul of our nation is in my life right now. It is abiding in the fire of thought with each passing hour; I am confident that we will speak of it more hereafter, and the time will come when I can offer something nourishing from it. We must find ways to be patient with ourselves and others, now that the urgent suspense is over. We must take up again the ordinary disciplines of mind and heart, and the faithful exercise of responsibilities, that together weave the fabric of our lives. For it is true that if we become so disheartened that we fail in this, then the victory of our oppressors is made all the greater.

And so I invite you to turn with me to our planned topic for this morning, which I trust will be not entirely without relevance to these recent events. We have all, I think, been a bit stunned by the increasing boldness of unapologetic racial prejudice in the period since Donald Trump’s campaign and election. Hate groups, like neo-Nazis, white identity based organizations, anti-muslim groups, and the KKK, have become adept at using social media to reach their potential audience, as well as staging rally events and making the news. This is not entirely attributable to the Trump presidency, and indeed not just an American phenomenon, nor even particularly recent. In fact, such groups have been around long enough to have been the object of some interesting academic study, the results of which, I would suggest, ought to be of significance for the church, and for religious community in general. One intriguing factoid that I have gleaned from the work of the Southern Poverty Law center, is that the KKK itself, as an organization, appears to be losing its popular appeal. From 2016 to 2017, the actual number of chapters dropped from 130 to 72. I speculate that this decline may be largely generational; that the aging kluxers may not have taken to the internet and social media fast enough to secure the attention of today’s teens and young adults, and also that the rituals and hierarchy of titles that may have gratified their grandfathers might strike millennials as ridiculous, no matter how much they might embrace the teachings of prejudice. Ahem; church, take note!

Another data point worth pondering came out of the Scandinavian research cited by Wes Enzinna. Because they were looking specifically at people leaving the Norwegian neo-Nazi movement, the investigators were able to report that the average length of involvement was between three and four years. This resonates with the accounts of several reformed American skinhead gang members, whose convictions changed as they married or started enduring romantic relationships, had children, and began building businesses or careers – in other words, grew up. There certainly are a sad number of life-long members of hate groups, but it is suggestive that for many people, their attraction to these organizations is a phase that may eventually be outgrown. Here, too, it seems to me that the church might have a useful role to play.

But the most significant insight from these studies is that attitudes of prejudice do not so much precede a person’s entrance into the life of a hate group, but rather, follow it. You don’t become a neo-Nazi because you already hate Jews; you learn to hate Jews from your fellow neo-Nazis. So if people are not joining such groups to support pre-existing prejudices, why do they join? That is the question that Arie Kruglanski asked, and his results are kind of stunning. People join hate groups to get their psychological human needs met; needs for identity, belonging, meaning, and excitement. If hate becomes the recipe for meeting those needs, they will learn to hate – and they will resist, with violence, efforts by others to deprive them of those emotional satisfactions. Indeed, many former members, who have escaped the gravitational force of ideological gangs, often describe themselves as addicts: they may have gotten sober, but they know the power of the drug, and are aware of its enduring attraction for them.

This is precisely why I believe that bad religion drives out no religion. Those human needs that are addressed by religious community are not imaginary, no matter how many hypocrite clergy you may have encountered, or how many errors the scriptures may contain. Those needs will have their way with us, one way or another, and if we cannot provide for them apart from communities of hate, then hate is what we will consume. Hate is easy; it is in some ways what we are genetically programed for if we are not both careful and lucky. Let’s explore for a moment what it is that hate groups supply, and how authentic religious community might offer the kind of substance that would plug into those same receptors in the soul, and block the appeal of hate’s message.

Arie Kruglanski named three psychological needs that hate groups provide for; I actually think there is a fourth as well. Identity, belonging, story, and adrenaline – all of these, I propose, we could find in positive religious community, if we were intentional about teaching ourselves to do so. Identity is easy for a hate group; I am whatever the other isn’t. I am white, I am straight, I am male, I am able-bodied, I am Christian, or Muslim, or American, and everyone else isn’t; everyone else is different in a way that makes them less worthy than me and those just like me. Identity is a basic human need; we all want to know who we are, and what makes us special. That’s fine, but it does not *have* to come at someone else’s expense. A positive religious identity has two parts. The first is that each of us is human, like all other people. In a theistic tradition, one might say that all of us are children of god. As a Humanist, I like to say that we are all children of the cosmos; the same creative energies and forces that brought about other life, brought about us. At the same time, each of us is a unique and irreplaceable genetic experiment, with differing abilities, preferences, and gifts to offer. If we are reminded to appreciate both our common humanity, and the value of diversity, we are less likely to seek our sense of identity by disparaging others for not being exactly like us. Sometimes the biggest challenge that we face as Unitarian Universalists is learning to celebrate how much our unique faith means to us, without mocking or belittling those who believe differently, but that is an important commitment and skill.

The second need that Kruglanski identified he called ‘network’, and I am calling belonging. Human beings are designed by evolution to be a social species, and our limbic networks are not complete in isolation; we all need to belong to a group. Hate groups bind themselves together around a common grudge against the world; members share a conviction that they have suffered a wrong, and should receive special privileges as a result. If you did not feel yourself to be part of this grudge before you joined the group, you will learn to sense it as your connections grow, and you come to want pay back on behalf of the others, even before yourself. By contrast, authentic religious community comes together not around a grudge, but around a covenant; a promise of mutuality about how we are going to stand together in the face of life’s difficulties and challenges; a pledge to be there for one another, and to hold ourselves and each other accountable for living the values we believe in. Taken seriously, that covenant creates a powerful bonding; it is when we have struggled side by side with other people to meet a challenging goal, or confront a danger, or keep each other going, or help each other grow even when that is uncomfortable, that we are most truly connected. If we have a covenant that we are striving to be faithful to, we don’t need a grudge to unite us.

Kruglanski called the third need ‘narrative’; part of our mental operating system as human beings is that we are story tellers, including about our own lives. We deeply long to see ourselves as part of a significant, meaningful story – if at all possible, we would like to be one of the heroes of that drama. All hate groups seem to have elaborate conspiracy theories; dramatic stories of which their members are the only ones to be fully aware, the only ones who are heroically responding to the real crisis of the times. To embed our own lives and actions into an on-going narrative offers a sense of purpose and meaning; it makes us important in the scheme of things. Religious communities offer their own versions of the narrative that our lives are part of; it may be the story of salvation, or spiritual awakening, or the wheel of karma, or the war between good and evil. For our community, I think the common story is the progress of the Enlightenment; the triumph of knowledge and reason over ignorance, of democracy over tyranny, and of equal justice over selfishness and special interest. Part of the work we do here is to remind each other that we are, in fact, part of that essential narrative, even when we are in a difficult chapter like the present.

Lastly, hate groups offer their members the adrenaline of mob psychology and violence. There is something viscerally satisfying about submerging our inhibitions and indulging our anger, but that indulgence is destructive to both self and community. From the accounts of former members, it is striking how often the simmering violence of hate groups gets turned upon its own constituents in response to some real or imagined failure of loyalty; they will beat each other up with almost the same enthusiasm as the ostensible objects of their wrath. Which suggests that the violence itself is in fact the point. There have been religious communities over the course of history which have used these same kinds of excitements – in holy war, for example, or human sacrifice – but that is not something we would want to emulate. Rather, I think, we must cultivate our ability to be genuinely moved by all that is sacred – by the wonders of creation in nature, by examples of human nobility and sacrifice in the service of ideals, by images of hope for the possible future we envision, by tenderness for all the losses and sorrows that we share, and even by the demand to bear witness for more equal justice in the world. We may never be entirely immune to the siren song of violence, but when our hearts are filled with the astonishments and mysteries and tragedies of human existence at its deepest, then we have something better than hate to build the meaning of our lives upon.
It has been said that where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow; I am convinced that where we tend a community of love, the power of hate is diminished. Where we offer connection and teach the message of our common humanity, the hunger to belong will not so easily drive us to learn prejudice and vengeance as a way for our lives to matter. We do this not only for ourselves, to keep our own souls safe from the corrupting messages of hatred, but all the more for others, so that there might always be a different option, something better than hate for those who are searching for a source of significance. It is all here, in this heritage of freedom and reason, of mutual acceptance and the celebration of diversity. It is here; identity and belonging, a story to tell, and inspiration to share. It is here, in our response to the summoning of the human spirit, which calls us to the better lives we might lead, the better selves we might become, and the better world we might build together.

When that spirit says do, even in the face of oppression’s most insolent deeds, well, you gotta do.