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I spent a quiet New Year’s eve at home, thankful, I think to not be drinking more than I should. As one friend reminded me after a New Year’s eve when I had most definitely been over served by the bartender, “you know what happens when a drunk resolves to stop drinking on New Year’s eve? They are more than likely to just give up thinking instead.”
Sitting at his computer preparing to write about his New Year’s resolutions the Quaker Parker Palmer’s spell checker changed resolutions it to New Year’s revolutions, perfect he thought, resolutions are too boring anyway. Here is what he wrote in On Being:
“The past year brought a floodtide of human suffering…the plight of millions of refugees, the spate of mass killings in public places, the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, the ongoing degradation of Earth itself. That’s why we need some revolutions in the New Year.
“Revolutions that succeed are always for something rather than merely against this or that. But if we’re serious about what we’re for, we need to name what we’re willing to stand openly against. It’s not enough to say ‘Yes!’ to things like love, truth, and justice without saying a loud, clear ‘No!’ to their ruthless enemies, risking reprisals as we do. Pete Seeger had these words inscribed on his banjo: ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.’
“What Pete did with his music, we need to do by word and deed in our families, among our neighbors and friends, in our workplaces, religious communities, and the public square.” (Parker Palmer “On Being” 12/30/16)
I come to you today to talk about the wisdom of resistance, when it is needed and how to apply it. Revolutions are the most active form of social resistance, and while Parker Palmer is correct, a revolution starts as a movement of resistance; a promise that is part of our faith.
Just what is this promise we make as part of our faith; what I call so often as our spiritual imperative? In short, it is the need for us to create a better world. For hundreds of years, our forebears, the Unitarians and Universalists who have been part of this country since its founding, devoted their lives to the creation of a religion dedicated to building a better world. Above all, they wanted to build a world where justice took precedence over self-interest. They wanted to help the disadvantaged and the poor. They wanted to build strong social institutions based on equality. They wanted to put an end to discrimination. They believed that liberal religion was about creating a better society on earth, not worrying about an eternal life beyond death. More interested in getting heaven into people than people into heaven.
We have lost that revolutionary fever. We have become deadened to the power of those with money over our lives. You know that the first thing a conquering people do to the conquered? They establish a system of debt. If you owe money, than you are enslaved at a moral level much more powerfully than if we put you in chains. Think about it; why are so many people still holding on to property that is worth less than what they owe. Because there is moral stigma to not paying your debts, even if the debt is only a contract secured by property. I contend that our struggle with immigration reform is just such a debt. We are forcing people into dangerous journeys across our borders, denying children brought here by their parents a fair education, and tearing families apart because we have made being here a moral debt – the debt that to be here you have to be born here – despite the fact that 99 per cent of immigrants are law abiding, tax paying people regardless of their citizenship status. There ought to be a revolution. And we ought to be part of it!
This is a part of the ancient tradition that Unitarians and Universalists have upheld. We are not interested in a world of dominance, where the chosen are blessed and included, where the wealthy and powerful inherit more privilege and opportunity, and where the rest are left to find their own way. Our founders, for the past two centuries, have called us to be prophets, to work for justice, to protect the poor and disadvantaged, to speak out against those who seek wealth and power for themselves.
That is our Unitarian Universalist birthright. That is our Unitarian Universalist challenge, our calling, our imperative, our revolution. It is a standard by which to measure our lives. Martin Luther King, Jr., said it so powerfully, over and over again: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Many do not know that those words were spoken first not by Dr. King, but by Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian minister, in Boston, more than a hundred years before King led the civil rights movement. “The arc of the moral universe” is our phrase. It is our call to revolution. It is our vision of the future. It is a foundation of our liberal faith. We believe in pursuing justice. “Faith is the sister of justice” wrote the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams. We are called by virtue of being human, as the Unitarian Mary Wollstonecraft declared to be the “Jeremiahs of a Just Community”.
We are being called to a revolution. No it’s not a revolution of violence, it’s a revolution of facing our own wounds as people of privilege and imagining how we might help those who are so hurt by the forces of power and privilege, especially, our gay, lesbian, transgender siblings and those who are facing even deeper hardship as immigrants whether they are here with or without documentation. We call it Standing on the Side of Love, and it means we stand with, to witness with those who are marginalized by our society. Its distinctive yellow banners and t-shirts are part of what we are called to follow. Today’s good news is that we already a part of the revolution and we have been for a very long time. Two hundred years ago our religious movement was stirred by the Great Awakening of revivalism in this country mostly on the side of caution and reason. We are in the midst of another great awakening, a great re-awakening, where the ordinary stand with the oppressed and call on the rich to stop this madness we call capitalism. It is a revolution, make no mistake about that and this time we are in it. This time we are joining in.
Ours is not a creedal faith. You do not have to profess your faith in the one god, to one truth, but you we are a covenantal faith, you do have to profess your individual faith in the context of a community of love and action. It means something to be a UU. It means we are in action, as our faith grows. It’s the reason we kindle a flame as our call to worship, and we don’t bow before an altar.
Revolutions are just the most extreme form of resistance. And we are a force of resistance. Just two weeks ago Chris Lanni, a freshman at Staples High School died of an overdose he took after being distraught over an online break up. He died right before Christmas. His death is deeply felt by some of our youth. It takes tremendous courage to resist the dominant culture, especially in high school. When is it ok to resist and when should we go against the tide?
This is where wisdom lies. When I first entered the ministry I was resistant to every authority under the sun, thinking myself above the world. During my interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA, I seemed to have made it to the end without mishap, until the psychologist sitting just to my right, said “some of your tests indicate you have some real problems accepting authority”, to which I replied looking him straight in the eye, “says who?” Needless to say, the hour long deliberation that ensued almost cost me my ministry. Fortunately the rest of the committee thought that was very funny if not imprudent.
Understanding when and when not to resist depends on at least three variables. The first is to determine what would happen if you did not resist the wrong before you. Now this can be very difficult to do. Most of us are conflict adverse and so we have become very good at rationalizing our non-action in the face of injustice and maltreatment. My own measure of whether or not to resist rests on a calculus of what happens if one hundred of white men of privilege failed to act. The words of Dr. King haunt me in this regard:
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
This is where our resistance adds to the coming revolution. We all are wounded, some more outwardly such as the marginalized in our society and some more inwardly, even the relatively prosperous like ourselves. Part of this revolution is recognizing the fact that we are all wounded, and healing, incomplete as it is, comes when we stand with one another. I can’t tell you the number of times I have received a note from the head of some group that I came out to support as a white man. Not that I had any super power or even changed the minds of the oppressors but because my standing there gave those struggling the hope that they are not alone. There are people of good will, part of the system who stands with them.
Three days before Christmas about a dozen of us stood in witness against Islamic xenophobia in downtown Bridgeport at a prayer vigil. Would it have made a difference if we had not shown up? I believe it would have. Our twelve would have decreased the crowd by 15%, a noticeable difference. But more than that, those who were there felt stronger because those like us, who came from a place of privilege, used that witness to extend our legitimacy to those protesting.
My second measure in the wisdom of resistance has to do with what would happen to those who knew me had I not gone. Make no mistake about it my friends, our children are watching, our friends are watching, this congregation is watching. Standing against hate, however hopeless that might be, is a sign of hope to someone. You can’t always tell who you will touch. I recall one young man, years ago that met me at a rally on behalf of equal marriage, who wrote me, to say he was near suicidal before that event. “And to have a minister there, means that I am not going to hell for being gay.” Of course, there are times when the balance falls towards other needs. A pastoral emergency or a family crisis will, indeed should, pull us away from an act of resistance, unless that resistance is in advocating for those we love. My father, bless his memory, spent his life resisting corporations and the status quo, more than once I bailed him out of jail, but it took a toll on our family.
Finally, I measure the wisdom of resistance it what it will do for me. Rarely, just like going to the YMCA for a workout, do I leave a demonstration or finish writing a letter and say to myself “Gee, that was a great waste of time, I wish I hadn’t done that.” It is almost always wort h resisting hate with love, even if it seems hopeless to do so. I will never forget what a pilot friend of mine once said, “in order to fly, we must have a resistance to the air and a force strong enough to move us”.
Would two or three of us walked away from that vigil before Christmas? Perhaps, but twelve was just enough to hold us there as a group of resistance. In fact, that was our collective prayer as we held hands in a park across the street before the vigil, to be a group of resisters.
We are a covenanted community. That means we have hopes in common and we make promises to each other. We have in the words of my friend John Beurhens “a spiritual center and a civic circumference.” That circumference is formed by both our cooperation with the forces of good will in our community and our opposition to the forces of greed that we and others stand against.
Admittedly this is something we must do together and with feeling. What we decide to stand against is not always subject to rational decision-making. As Robert Conklin wrote:
“Resistance is thought transformed into feeling. Change the thought that creates the resistance, and there is no more resistance.”
In the words of the poet and minister Peter Fredrichs:
Press the tender flesh of your knowing
Against the steel door of your fear.
Stay there, breathing,
as its icy skin draws out the heat
of your racing heart.
Feel its resistance
to the yes of your hopes,
the imminent expiration
of your dreams.
You could have avoided this pain.
You could have stayed safely cradled,
blind, in the womb of your ignorance.
But in the silence of a moonless night
something called you here,
to this impenetrable place.
At the edge of sleep, or death,
you heard a sound
from beyond this door:
A prisoner, past all hope of release,
tapping his bent spoon
against the cell wall
that divides you,
desperate to be heard and known.
This is your life calling.
And now, having heard its cry,
you have no choice but
to find a way through
(Quoted in SoulMatters.org, Jan 2016)
Do know this my friends: You will not do this alone. Make this your New Year Revolution, not just a resolution: Resist what is wrong in our lives and our world is natural and necessary. But remember this most of all: Resistance is shared, when possible and made stronger side by side. Humanity is collective. Here is to our New Year and our work together. Amen.