All Souls Kansas City

September 29: “Nevertheless” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

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“The opposite of a gun is, wherever you point it.” Just sit with that idea for a minute. Let it resonate across your mind, like an echoing bell sound. I’ll wait.

The opposite of a gun is a 15 year old gang member. The opposite of a gun is a woman with bruises trying to leave her abuser. It’s a liquor store clerk fumbling to open the cash register. It’s a teacher trying to shield a child with their body. It’s a person of color wearing a hoodie. It’s a grandmother in Kabul. The opposite of a gun is any random concert-goer, church-goer, mosque or synagogue-goer, nightclub-goer. It’s you, or me, on any random day – it’s all of us. We, all of us, are the opposite of a gun. Let’s not forget that it’s a deer in the woods, too; a wolf in the hills, an elephant or tiger on the savannah. All of us, together; the whole interdependent web. That rifle sight helps to define our solidarity, our shared vulnerability to destruction. It is what we have in common – none of us is safe. Nothing alive, or beautiful, or tender, or sacred, is safe. That’s my answer to the poem: the opposite of a gun is, all that is holy. It’s not just guns, of course; it’s bombs and tanks, and poisons in the water, and fires in the forests, and drugs in the streets. It’s all the violence that we do to the planet, and to each other.

The opposite of that, is this – this odd, awkward, sometimes fumbling, sometimes amazing thing that we do together here. This reaching, every week, for hope, and some sense of mutuality, that we all matter, that we do not have to be exactly the same to have equal worth and dignity. The poignant wondering whether something somehow better isn’t still possible, for each of us, and all of us together in community and society. The opposite of blowing things away with bullets is gratitude for the blessings of the world, for the rhythms of loveliness in nature and the patient learnings and buildings of our human heritage; to remember and celebrate the gifts of the earth and the ancestors, so that they may be cherished and not lost.

That same quest for hope and gratitude also calls us into discomfort and change. The daunting project of dismantling colonialist patriarchy, with its centering of privilege in white, male, abled bodies and straight, cis-gender, neuro-typical consciousness bolstered by corrupt wealth, requires that all of us participate in re-imagining the world we want to live in. To question the basic cultural constructs that have kept you comfortable all your life is an act of courage and faith. To give voice to your truth, whether in challenge or in solidarity, if it is one that has been met with contempt for centuries, is also an act of courage and faith. We are here to strengthen one another in courage and faith, so that we can press on in that project, transforming ourselves so that we might help transform the world.

It is easy – so easy – to get discouraged in the face of the daily barrage that assails us; the shootings everywhere we turn, the violence, the injustice, the damage. The chipping away at ideas of equality, of welcome and compassion, of honoring integrity, of investing in the next generation rather than smoothing the path for our own children, of being responsible stewards of the planet, of acknowledging reasonable limits to how much we can have and do. It can make us feel powerless, and you know what? That’s a feeling we should get used to. Because the opposite of that feeling is dangerous. The opposite of feeling dismayed and confused and a bit resentful, is the totally mistaken notion that we are, and really ought to be, in charge. The idea that we know how to solve all these problems, if only everybody would listen to us and do as we say; it’s not that hard, if people would just stop dinking around with their own silly ideas and follow direction. That frustrated belief in your own entitled rightness, if left unchecked, will lead you to pick up a gun, or drive into a crowd of demonstrators, or fire up a torch. Unless you see it for what it is; an artifact of unconscious privilege. It’s the expectation that if you are a man, if you are white, if you are heterosexual and able-bodied, that you live, as Ann Hathaway describes, at the center, and everything else that is different orbits around your reality.

What we are trying to wrap our minds around is a kind of second Copernican revolution; to completely reconceive the way the universe is structured, with you and me, and probably even humanity itself, not at the center. Until you get used to it, that is very disorienting; it makes for a kind of existential vertigo which is, to say the least, uncomfortable, if you are accustomed to being at the hub, or close to it. But let me offer you a little reassurance: You are traveling somewhere between 65 thousand and 67 thousand miles an hour just sitting right there, as the earth rotates on its axis and hurtles around the sun, and it doesn’t seem to be bothering you that much. You can get used to not being at the moral power center of everything too.

But probably not all by yourself. The transformation of social structures by the nature of the thing can’t be a merely individual endeavor, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You might wake up one morning and realize that the world has changed, but that just means that things were happening that you weren’t paying a lot of attention to. And I think that Akaya Windwood is right; the death throes of supremacist culture are as mesmerizing as a slow-motion train wreck, and just as toxic. We need to know what is going on, but we don’t need to immerse ourselves in the gore any more than we can help, especially when it feeds the temptation to self-righteousness. Most of us have plenty of hunks of privilege to remove from our own eyes before we go examining the splinters in other peoples’.

Windwood writes: We are witnessing the death rattle of patriarchy and his handmaiden white supremacy. I suggest that rather than poke around in the gore and continually make ourselves sick from toxic exposure, we attend to our collective well-being – remembering to care for each other and the earth, and to make art and love as we resist, mourn, heal and build. Let’s refuse to be bamboozled or fascinated by the ongoing and seemingly relentless ugliness of oppression. Let’s insist on remembering that we are all kin, and that repairing the world is both our birthright and our responsibility.

That, dearly beloved, is precisely why we are here – to care for each other and the earth, to enact love and beauty as we try to resist, mourn, heal and build; to remind ourselves that we are all kin, and that repairing the world is both our inalienable right, and our inescapable responsibility. None of these ideas are new; they are what we have always been about, what authentic communities of faith have always been for. I know that it means flying in the face of cultural trends, but it seems to me that this is exactly the wrong time to give up on the church. We need communities of practice that can keep urging us to de-center privilege, and to attend to our collective well-being even while we are still surrounded and enmeshed with history’s toxic by-products. What other institution calls us to mourn and heal, to resist and build, in the same reflective, intentional way? What other institution asks us to consider, for the purpose of poetry, what is the opposite of a gun? What other institution recognizes the vertigo of soul that happens when we remove ourselves from the center of the universe, and holds us while we find a more sustainable moral footing?

Another artifact of privilege is that in addition to assuming we know the answers, those of us accustomed to being at the center want our solutions NOW. Any strategy, or any leader, that does not produce immediate results is obviously inadequate, and surely we deserve better. But rarely, if ever, does collective change work that way. The 20th century union leader Nicholas Klein was wiser when he observed, “First they ignore you; then they ridicule you; then they attack you; then you win; then they build monuments to you.” The only tactic I know of that works throughout this entire process is sheer, dogged persistence. Chattel slavery was ended in the western world by those who refused to give up. Women got the vote because they refused to give up. AIDS treatment and marriage equality were achieved by those who persisted in their purpose in the face of ridicule, ignorance, and hostility. Racial justice and equality for trans people and access for the disabled will be accomplished not by genius or brilliance alone, but by those who refuse to give up. And dismantling the white privilege and patriarchy within each of us will only reach a breakthrough in communities where we don’t give up – where we persist in the face of our own discomfort, and each other’s cluelessness. Where we keep committing to mourn and heal, to resist and build, together.

Reflecting on the stories of women in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as well as women in congress, the author Valerie Schultz writes: “We women persist. Isn’t that our job? Throughout history, we have persisted in our quest for respect, for justice, for equal rights, for suffrage, for education, for enfranchisement, for recognition, for making our voices heard. In the face of violence, of opposition, of ridicule, of belittlement, even of jail time, nevertheless, we have persisted.” The same has been true for any group that wants to create lasting change, in themselves, or in the world.

It would be very unusual, to say the least, for anyone to walk into this gathering on one Sunday morning, and suddenly be transformed into a totally woke anti-oppression racial activist, fully committed to the work of dismantling dominance culture. That rarely happens, and if it did, I’m not sure I would trust their conversion for some time afterwards. What more often happens is that discomforts become insights, and one testimony leads to a broader awareness; we get used to the vocabulary, and learn to ask questions instead of reflexively defending ourselves. Minority groups who find themselves seen and heard in meaningful ways start to show up with larger voices, to take up more rightful space, to test the limits of institutional safety. We discover each other, often in disappointment and frustration, often needing to make demands and make amends, to try again. Sometimes we learn, sometimes we connect, sometimes we know how grateful we are for each other. Once in a while we get a clear vision of the place we want to go together – the beloved community that might be possible — and it keeps us going. Other times we just feel confused and powerless and trapped in the toxicity of the moment. And that’s the ‘nevertheless’ in ‘nevertheless, she persisted.’ That’s the moment when it is easy to choose to give up, to go back to sleep, to become the center of the universe again. That is when we need a faith community to remind us that patriarchy and white supremacy and all its other minions have no future; they are on the impotent life support of violence to people and to the earth and to the truth. They are the gun, and we are the opposite, the thing it is pointed at – life, beauty, community; flowers and snowflakes and midwives and poems.

We have to persist, or else our visions come to nothing. Windwood says, not just some of us, but all of us. “Some of us will resist and stand guard, making sure that the rot and fallout are minimized. Some of us will provide hospice, insuring that the old systems die well and thoroughly. Some of us will tend to the victims and survivors. Some of us will design and create new paths to a common and integrated future. We need every single one of us – those who revolt, those who restore, and those who dream and create the futures we’re committed to. No one task is more or less important than any other – all of it is honorable and necessary.” All of it functions by persistence, forging ahead through that ‘nevertheless’ moment, in part because this place and these people are here with us, to mourn and to heal, to resist and to build, to rage and to rise; because together we are mighty, and holy, and ready to be changed.