This sermon was first preached on 10/12/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It works through the painful and tragic implications of Ebola, ISIS and our perpetual state of war and how the media intersects this.
Earlier this week, I attended an awards dinner for a cancer charity where my fiancé works. Hundreds of scientists and doctors are flown in from around the world for a several daylong symposium that includes this dinner. There are also other professionals tied to the pharmaceutical companies who are more business-minded people than medical, and a smattering of others – like myself – that are only connected through partners. Everyone from suppliers, to doctors in early fellowship, to scientists who were on the short list to receive a Nobel prize. A pretty amazing cohort that represents some of humanity’s best collaborative scientific work.
As I was moving around chatting with random folks through the cocktail hour, one conversation turned toward the topic of Ebola, where the media would make you think Ebola was knocking on our front doors. (Which it very much is not.) One guest (who like me was there because of someone else, and not because of their medical or scientific expertise) began lamenting about how scary Ebola is; how we don’t really know what “they’re” not telling us – presumably he meant the government – and how it could be everywhere. I calmly replied that Ebola was incredibly rare in the US; can only be contracted through bodily fluids; and pretty much the only Americans who have contracted it are medical professionals treating patients with it. He muttered something like, “well, we don’t really know.” And I let it drop out of politeness, thinking that even at this place filled with the best of our medical and scientific communities, misinformation can infect any of us.
According to CNN, as of Friday of this week, “A total of 416 health care workers are among those believed to have contracted Ebola. Of those, 233 of them have died, the WHO says.” Of course these numbers constitute health care workers who were working in West Africa, not down the street. It’s factually not an airborne virus, so it’s incredibly hard to get unless you’re in intimate or medical contact with someone with it.
This is a horrible illness – don’t get me wrong. With more than 4000 deaths from this outbreak in West Africa, I can only imagine the pain and suffering. But I feel it’s my pastoral duty in the face of the media barrage of insanity and terror to bring this back to perspective. As it’s flu season now, I’ll ask – how many of us have gotten our vaccines yet? (show of hands) I’m going tomorrow to get it finally. The World Health Organization reports: “Influenza occurs globally with an annual attack rate estimated at 5%–10% in adults and 20%–30% in children. Illnesses can result in hospitalization and death mainly among high-risk groups (the very young, elderly or chronically ill). Worldwide, these annual epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 250 000 to 500 000 deaths.” Now the flu is different in that its worst results usually only are seen in the already weak, whereas Ebola can easily kill a healthy person. But when you do the math, the flu kills 246,000-496,000 more people every year than the Ebola virus at this historically worst outbreak. However horrible the virus is to those who have to face it, it’s a blip compared to how the flu affects the world every year – and many of us don’t even get vaccinated for a virus that is actually airborne!
So what’s actually going on? Why do we trump this up right now? Fox and CNN seem to be covering it perpetually. CNN has even gone so far as to ask the burning question: “Is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents? It’s absurd, and it’s mainstream, but I think it may be pointing toward what’s actually going on. Ebola is terrifying. ISIS – noted for public beheadings – is terrifying. Both happen to be in the news right now – and I hate to say this – but it’s far past time more of us begin saying this loudly – terror sells coverage. Information – that which is most sacred to a functional secular society – has been co-opted for profit – and TV journalism has largely gone the route of fake Reality TV mixed with Video Blogging to large audiences.
This isn’t politics. It’s cultural. We are experiencing a profound shift in American identity right now. News that’s not sensational isn’t valuable and comes and goes faster than the wind. Stories that will grip us, even if they’re not actually worthy, in the scheme of things, of perpetual analysis, will linger because they keep us watching. They either reinforce our own beliefs or they foment fear. That’s propaganda. We are beginning to live in a state of propaganda. We’re not getting the context in our news that I recall from my childhood. I was a kid watching the old greats in news broadcasting, and I don’t recall such vapid opinion or sensationalism. And I was an impressionable child – if it were there it would have left a mark. It’s no longer all the news that’s fit to print – as they were wont to say – it’s more all the news that’s fit to sell.
Ebola and ISIS seem to have nothing in common, despite the CNN pithy remark from before. Yet they keep getting linked. We’re hearing story after story of fears that Ebola will invade us through Mexico or that ISIS will invade us through Mexico. On Thursday, Fox News falsely reported that four ISIS agents had slipped through the border. In fact, our department of Homeland Security clarified that four Kurdish terrorists, who are part of an Anti-ISIS group, had slipped through back in September and were detained. Was it ISIS or the enemy of ISIS that got into our country? And did they slip through or were they detained? Can they be detained and at large at the same time? That’s the level of terror-fomenting we’re living with right now. It’s not rational, but it definitely gets a great number of hits on the social media replay.
So we’re stoked on terror and we stay glued. But is that all that’s going on? I think the fear around ISIS (a Middle Eastern horror) and Ebola (a West African horror) and our Mexican border (where human beings are trying to work, migrate and find better homes for their children) is not about ISIS and Ebola, it’s about racism. We can’t argue against immigration reform with integrity, because most of us are decedents of immigrants from the past 100 years, so we need to come up with another way to keep Americans from trusting our neighbors from the South (yet interestingly never are concerned about our White neighbors from the North.)
Just a few months back we had an influx of children fleeing gang violence, trying to find a home in the US and the same media outlets were espousing fake stories about how safe it really was for children there. We can know this is factually untrue if we just think about ourselves. If you’re a parent, could you imagine risking your family’s life, crossing through a killing desert with your family, just to drop your child off somewhere else? And not doing that for any other reason than it’s just simply THAT bad back home? And factually speaking, we actually do know there’s significant violence from gang and drug cartels in Central American countries despite what some politicians will openly lie about. Tragically, these lies about what’s actually going on in Central America rarely get fact-checked live on air so the lies perpetuate. In the US, we call all that gang violence, part of the War on Drugs, yet we’ll pretend it’s not happening when we have kids show up on our doorstep asking for help.
When did we give up being the nation that welcomed the wretched, tired and poor upon our teeming shores? Now we imagine they are terrorists armed with viruses (that can only infect us through intimate contact.) We are in a state of perpetual war, and have shut our borders and imagined that every entry (from countries with people of color) are imminent threats to our safety and health. That we’re a religious (or Christian) nation that can also ignore the pain and suffering of foreign nations wracked with illness – as if caring for the suffering weren’t a religious value. Ignoring the strife and illness in other nations, when they’re asking for help, doesn’t develop allies. It only seeds chaos and nurtures future unrest, that we know from history, often leads to more violence. It’s not a wise a path. It’s not a compassionate path. And it’s not a patriotic path to ignore people in need asking for help. We are more than that.
If we continue to choose to live in a state of perpetual fear and isolation, we will continue to live in a state of war and perpetual ignorance. At a time in our nation where our senior leadership no longer looks white, and our national definition of what is considered normal regarding sexual morals has become more expansive and affirming, we are seeing a knee jerk reaction against anything that appears different from the 1950s standard of normal. We’re also inventing bogeymen where they don’t exist. Or importing real threats to locations where they don’t exist (like Mexico), demographics just happen to neatly match our fears around difference. An individual can go to therapy to deal with this – and that’s good – a nation can’t construct foreign policy based upon it, though. Unless we want to perpetuate the cycles of violence we have lived with for generations.
When we live in the knee-jerk space that is our ethics of “us over them” in all ways, we remain in a place of suffering. Or maybe I should say we create a place of suffering. There’s a difference between putting ourselves at risk and imagining fantastical risks that we need to defend ourselves from. When we live from the place of imagination-as-fear we replace all our creativity with loss and sorrow. Safety isn’t worth that. And I’m not sure the idolatry of safety is even realized when we respond to fantastical imaginations. We’re not safer by protecting ourselves from non-existant threats. We just utter politically correct non-sense that other leaders fear arguing with for worry of coming across as weak on security.
There’s a really excellent opinion piece on Bill Moyer’s blog that goes into all the bit-by-bit construction of our perpetual state of terror that I strongly recommend we all read. It’ll be linked here on the sermon online if you have the time to read it. But one quote that sums it up well is:
“In this context, perhaps we should think of the puffing up of an ugly but limited reality into an all-encompassing, eternally “imminent” threat to our way of life as the final chapter in the demobilization of the American people. Terror-phobia, after all, leaves you feeling helpless and in need of protection. The only reasonable response to it is support for whatever actions your government takes to keep you “safe.””
I’m not sure I’m willing to be so cynical that the government is systematically taking all these steps to fool the population into complacency. I personally feel it’s more the combination of “terror-selling-news” mixed with politicians remaining “politically correct” on the talking point of security for fear of losing an election over it. But I do agree with the author of that quote that terror-phobia leaves us feeling helpless. If we remain a helpless people for too long, what is the cost on our culture and our nation? How much do we choose to live in a state of terror?
Living in NYC for 10 years post 9/11 (and living the prior 10 years a few miles west of the City), I remember the day we began seeing military, with assault weapons, guard Penn Station. I remember being more afraid of those guns than the idea of terrorists. I remember being more afraid of living in a city that had people walking around with assault weapons, than I was taking my first flight after 9/11. I have friends and family in the military, friends in the police, FBI and secret service. I have always trusted their competence and their ability to keep serious threats off our borders. Mistakes can happen, but considering their remarkable track record on our nation’s ground for the past 200+ years, we can say it’s not commonplace, although sometimes tragic when they occur. Placing assault weapons in our transit hubs, when there’s never been a case where that was ever needed – they certainly wouldn’t have helped on the planes 13 years ago – only serves to get us used to living in a state of perpetual war. They’re a marker, a sign. Politically, they make us think we’re safer, but think about it, would you ever want to be near one – in a very crowded Penn Station – should they ever be put to use. If it gets that far, we have a much bigger problem. Friends, unless you are or you have a close family member or friend who is actively serving, it’s hard not to become numb to our state of perpetual terror and war. What we’ve accepted as normal, is changing our national identity.
As a religious people, we hear truth in the words from our choir song this morning. They relate to the teachings of St. Francis – they pray that we understand rather than be understood. That we actively care for others first rather than seek to be cared for first. It’s not always and only about us – and it is certainly not about our imagined fears. When we react to the world as if it were really only about our imagined fears, we remain locked into generations of violence, rather than seeking creative ways to improve our situation and the lot of others. That’s how things have been, it’s not how things must continue to be. Our perpetual choices to close our borders are not real – interestingly only on the borders that would welcome people of color – and to fantastically create links between obscurely rare viral illnesses with terrorists from the other side of the planet, speaks more about us than reality.
For as the prayer goes: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is injury, help me to pardon.” We have abandoned public discourse to arguments of the inherent permanence of terror. We allow ourselves only to be instruments of war. Knowing that our military use of drone strikes in civilian areas has significant civilian casualties, we can confidently say that our actions make it easier for terrorists groups to bring in new members. Terror breeds terror. And our hands are bloody over civilian deaths.
We begin by bringing love to places of suffering rather than arming rebel groups who will become our next enemy in a generation. We begin by traveling to places of suffering, like West Africa, and helping to treat outbreaks of Ebola before governments become destabilized and we have yet another hot bed of civil war that often creates new terrorist cells. We welcome the tired and weary who come to our borders and help their children find places of safety, rather than send them back to be easy victims for cartels or easy targets for new recruits. If a family wants to come to the safety of our shores and contribute to the American Dream, we let them. We don’t send them back to a nightmare. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is darkness, let me bring light. Where there is sorrow, let me bring joy.”
Let us return to our story this morning, remembering the words of Mr. Rogers’ mother in the face of tragedy, “to look for the helpers amidst the tragedy. There are always helpers.” This is one of the fundamental messages of Mr. Rogers’ formative years, which helped to shape the character of his public ministry. If there was ever a more universally beloved figure among my generation and the generation before mine, I could not think of one more trusted. What happens to our spirit, as a nation, when we so carelessly toss aside such wisdom? Look to helpers. Can we find them among ourselves?
Spirit of Peace, God of Many Names, Mother of Love,
Move through out hearts,
lighten our tight grips and clenched teeth,
ease the uninformed fears,
that infect our media,
weaken our resolve,
and limit our imagination.
Help us to find new ways,
to perennial problems.
Remind us of our human connectedness;
that compassion is virtue,
that maintaining a civil diversity of opinion is a discipline,
and hope is a spiritual practice that keeps us grounded when we despair.
As the temperatures continue to drop,
and many of us begin going to school or work when it’s barely light,
help us to find moments of reflection,
being aware of ourselves,
the life all around us,
and the weight of our hearts and breath.
Where we are weary, may we find rest;
where we are burdened, may we remember those around us who can lighten that load;
where we are joyous, before the quiet of the hour or the lengthening nights,
may our silent light be a strength for all.
Teach us to shine that light more often than hide it.
For the world needs such a gift, whenever we may give it.
This sermon was first preached on 10/5/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the writings of Martin Buber and how they influence our sense of purpose in life.
Remember our story earlier today about the two dogs going into a room full of mirrors and being greeted with what they brought in with them? When are we the dog wagging our tail, and when are we the dog growling and barking at ourselves? So often in life, how we react to the world, creates the way in which the world responds to us. Our actions create a cycle that’s sometimes hard to get out of. Now, I’m not primarily talking about matters of injustice, or violence, or hardship. That’s sometimes true too, but often the really horrible things that happen in life are out of our control. No one should carry the burden for what is random in the world. I’m not preaching the message of “The Secret;” in fact, we don’t always get what we give.
But we often see in the world what we see in ourselves. If we see in our selves cynicism, or hatred, or fear we can find the world a harsh place. If we know joy, or compassion, or forgiveness; we often find the world appears the same. When we come upon the funhouse mirror-filled rooms, we see the tails wagging or the teeth bared that we bring to it.
It’s a practical argument for self-care, self-affirmation and self-love. When we live our lives from a place of emptiness, we limit creation. As we lose a sense of value, or a sense of purpose, we enter a cycle of limiting how we can perceive meaning in the world. It’s a painful spiral, and something most, if not all of us, wrestle with from time to time.
Today marks another new year in the Jewish holy calendar. Throughout the world, Jews recognize this weekend as Yom Kippur – as a time of atonement. Last week, Starr preached about how forgiveness works between people and even within ourselves. Sometimes we also have to learn to forgive the world; forgive the universe, or chance, or maybe even God. We sometimes have to learn to let go of how we perceive the world ought to be differs from how the world is. Or maybe just how the world appears to us to be.
We often get caught in the trap of wanting things to be a certain way, then those things fall short, and we then succumb to disappointment, regret or disaffection. Remember, I’m primarily speaking about the every day, smaller things in life today, not the great injustices in the world. I’m speaking about the clutch and grab we often have over things, and preferences, and delays and achievements. The things commercials tell us we need, that they conveniently have the exact answer for – until the new model comes out of course. Then we’ll need it again. If our sense of purpose is tied to the things of the world, our spirits’ sense of satisfaction will be trapped to the temporal. That way lies only pain.
Forgiveness allows us to let go long enough not to hold the world, or ourselves to blame when the dreams of our ego, the desires of convenience, don’t win out. Those things are dross, so to hold animosity toward life when our wants, or our preferences, or those small conveniences are not met – is to lose the core of our purpose in living. And this is a daily struggle for most of us.
…I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.
The world around us has meaning, and it also has form. Finding the substance or distinction between this can be easy, yet is often nonetheless difficult. Dr. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher from the 20th century, influenced generations of wonderers on this very topic. Since I posted this week’s sermon topic, I’ve learned from a long time member, that Rev. Ralph Stutzman – our Fellowship’s minister from 1962 to 1980, was fond of preaching on Dr. Martin Buber. In the category of small world, Buber had probably the strongest philosophical influence on my own thinking of any religious scholar.
Here is a short excerpt from his book, “I and Thou.”
“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others – an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed; one can get it out again and again; one recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks with one’s eyes open. There is stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nested in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains that, according to your pleasure – and remains primarily alien both outside and inside you. You perceive it and take it for your “truth”; it permits itself to be taken by you, but it does not give itself to you. It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.
Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and everything only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as a being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. Then encounters do not order themselves to become a world, but each is for you a sign of the world order. They have no association with each other, but every one guarantees your association with the world.”
Buber is referring to the perception of two worlds. One world is of things. We can measure, count, taste, sense that world. But we also keep that world as “a common object,” a thing. The other world is the world of relationship. Not just a conversation with another, or the act of gardening in all its logistical complexity, not just petting a dog – but the place of encounter. It’s the world when we are recognizing another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts.
We each live in both. The world of it, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. As Buber writes, “Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” There is nothing bad about the world of it, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is to die into the world of it. Fortunately, there’s nothing to needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence. We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would due.
When I pay my bill at the diner, I can do it as a chore, or I can remember the people around me are living lives themselves; that I’m part of that whole. When I’m frustrated with how my kid is being willful in school or at home, I can focus on the chores that aren’t being done, or the stress I’m feeling over disobedience (both things that may be real problems), or I can remember that every human – kid or adult – goes through deep places of pain that extend beyond the details of any situation. The problem has to be attended to, but we don’t live by the problem. We are not defined by the details or the chores or the failure of them being accomplished. As important as all that may be to the completion of our tasks, they are not our essence, not our soul, not our being. Dealing with the specific problem doesn’t change the essence of our personhood or the inherent nature of human relationship. To focus, Buber said, “It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody…”. When we’re dealing with frustrated relationships with people that are incredibly close to us – like the case of a parent/child or child/parent argument – it helps to remember those words. The world takes a somewhat different form for everybody. We will always see a given situation from a different perspective. We’re rarely responding to the same situation with the same information or from same angle. Any disagreement – or any agreement for that matter – we can only come to an understanding about it – we don’t have the essential truth – just proximity. I mention this here, because in the most difficult of arguments we can sometimes fall into the trap of projecting onto another what we think is going on in their head. We know what their actions might mean if we were making them, and assume that’s what they mean as well. I’m not sure that’s often the case.
In that same quote, Buber is talking about the World of It. Measurements, details, processes and things. “It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody…”. I think this is also a good description though for how we talk about our encounters with the Holy. When we talk about the Holy – life, God, awe, spirit – whatever word makes the most sense to you – we often transmute the Holy into the World of It. It’s why you’ll oddly find this minister not talking too much about some of the theological questions of the Divine. It’s the old conundrum that you can talk about a thing or you can relate to it, or experience it – but it’s tough talking about something while you’re experiencing it. But the reminder that it takes a somewhat different form for everybody is really instructive. You might believe something differently because you’re seeing something else. It doesn’t mean the other person is wrong.
We’ve talked about the ethical, the pastoral and the theological. What abou the practical applications of some of Dr. Buber’s philosophy? Our Fellowship is about to make a major decision regarding the care of its grounds and finances this afternoon. We have a project from the world of It – the reconstruction of our parking lot and general improvement of our grounds, environment and how we manage water run-off. In the scope of “reasons to be a religious institute”, one could imagine this is not at the top of your list. How we manage the curbs, and the drainage, and the landscaping and the financing, are all important details that we’ll live with and through – but the details are not what we live by. We live by our relationships and our commitments. Money that was bequeathed to us by longtime beloved members is not just dollars and cents. They’re markers of life-long relationships of encounters with people, art and space that was centered around this Fellowship grounds. Parking Lots may not be spiritual, but the attended details that prevent someone from falling is how we live in this world. And the ways we care for the space around us, speak to the care we have for the memorial garden on our grounds – speak to the encounters with all that rest with us from decades past, and in our most recent months. The details will always matter – “Without [them] you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” We can not remain alive without attending to the bits that keep the world moving, but as we prepare to make one of the most important financial decisions in the past generation, let us not die into those details either. We are a Fellowship grounded in community. May we make all our decisions remembering the truth that we are here, on this earth, to bear witness to one another, to the Holy in any form it may take. And may we do so, wagging more, and barking less.
This prayer was given at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 9/21/14. Blessings to the many protestors in NYC today!
Spirit of Change, God of Many Names, Mother of Love,
As world leaders come together once more this week in NYC,
to discuss the future of our planet in light of the growing climate crisis,
we ask for them to be blessed with insight,
thinking of new ways to affect change in a world that needs it so desperately;
to be blessed with perseverance,
to navigate nations gridlocked by ignorance and greed,
and to be blessed with hope,
not to give up before the enormity of it all.
For humanity has faced countless challenges over the generations,
and we have the capacity to to face this as well.
May our people learn to value conservation
more than we value convenience;
to value truth over ease;
and compassion for a world where we are not the only inhabitants.
We are grateful for the many marchers in NYC this week,
bringing awareness to another critical moment in human history.
We offer blessings to each,
whether they have traveled on a train from Long Island,
or a bus from Portland.
May the spirit of renewal and consciousness you gift our world with this hour,
be in turn,
a blessing to us all.
We pause this hour, before the turning of the season,
from Summer days filled with warmth and shine,
to Autumn hours of crispness and cool.
May the turning of the wheel of the year be for
knowing that our lives move ever onward.
Joy that had passed will return,
and sorrow that seems like it never will end,
will some day fade away.
May our hearts be open
to the cycles of love and loss,
and know the grace of peace,
in the turning.
This updated sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 9/14/14 and explores the intersection of violence and gender. It reflects on cases of Domestic Violence (Rice and NFL), sexual assault and rape (Columbia University and Steubenville)
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing; I wish I was home; I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing.” These words open up the song Home from the musical The Wiz. It’s a powerful song from a woman who has come far in her own story. In this version of the rewrite of the classic, “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy is extremely introverted, she has, as Aunt Em teases her, “never been south of 125th street”, and refuses to move out and on with her life.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” It’s a myth of family, of home, of our roots, that love – and all these things – are neatly intertwined. It’s a myth that’s sometime’s true, like in the case of Dorothy, and sometimes hurtful. But the heart of the message is that there’s a point in our lives where we do need to move on – as introverted or as closed-off as we might be – and leave our homes – or leave our families – for something new. Sometimes we choose to do this, and sometime this chooses us.
There are those moments in life where we look around and see all the crazy, madness that seems to surround us. The Wiz, or the Wizard of Oz, hold mean witches and flying monkeys to portray this. In the real world we leave home and have to face real humans with real hate in their speech, or their actions, or their lack of actions. We craft the fantastical to help us understand, or to accept, or to distance ourselves from the very normal, the very real.
I have in mind this morning, the flying monkeys of this age, the fields of poppies that put us to sleep – this week, this month, this year – seem to me tied to our internalized and public sense of shame. The young Dorothy’s of this generation travel down roads, seemingly alone at first, where through no fault of their own they become targets of violence and denigration. We all know so many cases of this. Each is a more recent version of another, with other lives affected.
I am reminded of a Columbia University student, named Emma. “On the first day of her sophomore year at Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz was raped in her dorm room. Despite two other allegations of rape against the same attacker, Columbia University has dismissed all three cases. Horrified that her attacker is still a student at Columbia University, Emma is using performance art and her senior thesis [to send a message.] Two years after the alleged assault, [Emma], a visual-arts major, has made a promise to carry her mattress around campus every day as part of her senior thesis. It is, she says, a symbol of the burden sexual-assault survivors carry with them every day.” Not long after she begun her thesis, others in the community began helping her carry her mattress to her next class. She didn’t have to bear the burden alone. It’s in speaking up, sharing our stories, where we invite others to share in our journey and ease our suffering.
Or of the case of domestic abuse by Ray Rice of his girlfriend (whose name I will not mention because she has publicly said that all the specific attention has caused her more pain). He did not deny the claims, and was caught on video, yet it took the NFL weeks to suspend him, and not until the public was outraged by the viral video that was released. And more and more stories of other cases of domestic abuse being swept under the rug in the NFL to protect the male players at the expense of the women on the sidelines.
Both of these stories are visible this month. We could look back a year, to the case of rape, in Steubenville, Ohio. Where two teen boys targeted another drunk girl at a party. She too could represent every Dorothy, although every story is different. There are horrors that will challenge the victim for years that we can’t just wave away. But there are also horrors that we as a society will continue to perpetuate that make me suspect the idea of the safe home, where love’s overflowing. Following the conviction of the boys last year, some news coverage took a disturbing route. CNN largely focused on the effect the conviction will have on the boys who were found guilty. The media showed – on loop – the heartfelt apologies one of the victimizers gave. The coverage lent a tone of heroism to the boy’s apology.
Candy Crowley of CNN asked, “What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape essentially?” Or reporter Poppy Harlow said, “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.” Or CNN legal contributor Paul Callan noting, “There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.” It may haunt them for the rest of their lives, but I can’t remember the perpetuators’ names a year later, but I’m sure the victims will never forget.
I watched these reports over and over. Trying to see the space where it became about the health and wholeness of the girl who was hurt. Or about how society doesn’t know how to handle the aftermath of harm. Or how the courts are doing their best to make clear that rape is rape. But all I see is sympathy for the lives of the victimizers that are destroyed by their actions. As if being labeled for life a sex offender – for the simple reason of being a sex offender – was a serious grievance done to these boys. Or protecting a star football player is more important to the bottom line, than the safety of a woman trying to keep her home a place of safety. Or honoring the word of several Columbia University women who all have made the same allegations, who are only trying to learn in school.
“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back there; now that I have some direction. It would sure be nice to be back home; where there’s love and affection.” We all have to deal with hard times in our lives. Some of us, too many of us, need to face times of incredible pain. In those moments we wish to be able to turn back to a place of safety, of affection, of simplicity where we can regain our footing; and immerse ourselves in a sense of nurture. To return to our center in light of all that we have to face and all that we have learned. Journalism like this with CNN, or with those common lessons that teach women how to prevent harm to themselves rather that instilling in people the drive not to harm. The public sense of culpability errs on the side of how she could have prevented this rather than on why he should have known better. And to be true to the world, the victims are not always women – but it so often happens this way.
Our theology of Universalism asks of us to strive for a place of openness, of compassion for those that cause harm. Holding hatred, or malice helps no one, and harms most of all ourselves. It can grip our hearts, and make us forget to love freely, to live deeply, to hope when we need to so desperately. —- I appreciate the compassion in the journalists’ from CNN’s coverage. —- I criticize the focus. Many lives were ruined as they say – but some lives bear the brunt of their own mistakes – and that guilt, that shame, should not fall upon the victims in our world.
“Suddenly my world has changed it’s face, but I still know where I’m going. I have had my mind spun around in space, and yet I’ve watched it growing,” Dorothy continues on singing. Our childhood sense of normal, of safety, of home will go away – and return – throughout our lives. But we can find a compass to steer by; we can know where we’re going despite all that feels like it’s been thrown at us. In fact, it takes each of us returning to our compasses to see the way.
Common sense tells us that victims might be wise to learn how to avoid, as best we can, future harm – but the onus is not on them. The crime is not ours. The partners in so many homes throughout our country who are survivors of violence – may sometimes be stuck in a trap – but they are not the source of that trap. For some of us in this room – this is a given. For some of us in this room – they have learned this truth the hard way. For some of us in this room – we desperately need to hear it – right now. Our culture of shame is a collective trip we buy into, and it requires collective action to let go. We have to lovingly remind ourselves, time and again, that we ought not feel shame for the actions of others – that is for them to bear. It is for us to find our direction again in our own lives.
“If you’re list’ning God, please don’t make it hard to know if we should believe in the things that we see. Tell us, should we run away. Should we try and stay, or would it be better just to let things be?” Dorothy asks pleadingly. This question – right here – might be the heart of the message. The culture of shame we have built as a nation – around women, their bodies, and who gets to decide what – is not to be believed. It is as false as can be. We have fabricated an insane politic that lifts up personal freedom while simultaneously legislating corporate control of one gender’s identity – sometimes with as much emotional impact as other forms of actual assault. Our media blithely discusses “about women” in a way that men would be shocked should we ever do the same to us fellows. For the men in the room – try to imagine any form of legislation that would ever affect us where a panel of women sit and decide what we do with our bodies? Would that feel merely intellectual, or political, or would it feel invasive? Try to imagine a situation where we were the victim of sexual assault and where the news would take the side of the perpetrator or focus on how unfortunate it is that the perpetrator’s life is now ruined. I could not imagine this – at all. It would be seen as horrific, shocking. It would not be read as as simple statistic; a norm to be expected.
Victims of physical violence often internalize the blame – in part because we as a society say that we’re always able to have done something to prevent it – so when we didn’t prevent it we search for why we didn’t prevent it. We do this as kids when we’re hurt as kids. When we’re bullied as teens we draw the lines to why it’s really our fault, even though we hate the bully. And we carry that with us for the rest of our lives. As adults we’ve often convinced ourselves that we are able to accomplish so much so if this happens to us, we should have been able to stop it. And we’re trapped. We’re centered in our sense of shame. We seek to find blame – and while pointing anger toward those who are guilty, secretly – inside – deep down – we believe the lie that it’s about us. We echo the lie our culture tells us to believe.
Central to our faith is the conviction of worth. Our first principle is not a simple belief statement that solely means we’re all inherently worthy. It does mean that too. We have worth – we have human value. It also means that we are tasked with committing ourselves to the discipline of fostering and uncovering the worth in each of us. Shame buries our sense of worth. Shame teaches us to limit who matters and by how much they are allowed to matter. The discipline of worth calls us to challenge anything that diminishes the human spirit.
“And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find a world full of love. Like yours; like me; like home…”. Dorothy blesses us with those closing words. We can turn this around. We are the people we have been waiting for. In all its complexity, all its difficulty – this world full of hurt is also a world full of love. Our hearts that are broken, also carry within them a love that is full whether we have forgotten it or not. In recognizing the careful messages we as a people have crafted around blame, shame, and power we can unlock the fullness of our hearts once more. We have to start by recognizing the messages for what they are. We either see them, or we live by them – and we can’t live by the culture of shame – not truly.
Spirit of Renewal, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
Remind this hour of all the places and people in our lives that give us reasons for gratitude;
for the spaces of quiet awe,
that teach us grace and beauty exist in this world without striving or doing,
that simply being is a gift to be valued,
and we are all valued.
We are grateful for the touchstones in our lives that help us to feel whole,
when we feel lost or empty.
Teach us to remember the joyous when we are lost in the painful,
and remind us of the times we have felt lost,
when it’s hard to be compassionate to another’s difficulty.
As a new school year begins,
we reflect on another year past,
another summer slipping away.
May the warmth and the rest,
wherever it was found,
stay with us,
along with the memories.
Help us to take a breath,
keep their fondness near to our hearts,
and begin the work and the study of another year,
with gratitude and purpose.
As a community coming together in strength,
after a summer of work, of travels, of hobbies and projects,
we recommit to our mission of nurturing our spirits in community,
in caring for one another and ourselves,
and helping to heal the corners of the world in which we dwell.