The Slow Slide Back

This sermon was originally preached for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 16th, 2011 at First UU of Brooklyn.

Nationally, this weekend we pause to honor the life, the accomplishments and the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We learn about the man, the mission, and the vision. We remember his quest for racial desegregation, his promotion of peace in general, and his widespread expansion of non-violent protesting as a mark of active citizenship in the United States. We encourage civic volunteering as a nation this weekend; we also tend to take a day off from work tomorrow; and our schools will be closed. It wasn’t till 2000 that the holiday was observed in all fifty states. Interestingly, “[the holiday] is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, while it is observed together with Human Rights Day in Idaho. (…) It is also a day that is combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday in some states.”[1] (Apparently Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.) …

… We honor his legacy now in ways that we never could honor his life; for when he was still living, we in the States at least, our collective national consciousness – used different ways to single him out. We used dogs, and we used fire hoses (most of us will remember that classic photo, and some of us in this room were there); and finally and tragically a gun. We pick a day, as good as any other, to remind ourselves that we’re not always our best selves when it comes to integrity of character; to remind us of the importance of compassion for our neighbor; and maybe to dream once more that there might be another way. We take a weekend each year to mark the truth that something great happened on this soil; something that grew from centuries of pain and suffering; something that was most notably brought into pinpoint clarity by this man. Something great that was an appropriate, and fitting, and remarkable and yet simply necessary response to the torpor our collective consciousness otherwise lied in at the time.

On this weekend, we thank you Mr. King for your dream; for your vision; for your sacrifice – even as we mourn and regret that such a sacrifice was apparently needed or allowed to occur. And we try to shake ourselves once more to realize that each one of us are the people left to pick up that mantle once more and still. May our hearts come to know a way to celebrate that goes beyond the ready ease of just another day off that otherwise might pass us by unremarkably.
With the closeness in timing of this national holiday to the recent shooting tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona, I can’t help but wonder about the slow slide back from non-violent protests of the Martin Luther King, Jr legacy we celebrate. I can’t help myself but to imagine the lines of intersection and difference between the two – not in the rationale of madmen, but in the effect they have had on our collective consciousness. I won’t take the time now to analyze the clinical facts and details, beyond reflecting that I am grateful the assassination attempt of Reps Giffords, has so far failed, while mourning the death of six people ranging from age 79 to 30 to 9. The youngest of which, Christina-Taylor Green, would have been 10 years old this coming September 11th. She had appeared in the book Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11 (page 41).

This last detail in itself is so heartbreaking. A child who symbolizes hope in the face of tragedy is now forever lost to us. It makes it easy to imagine why pundits, and politicos, and preachers might wax eloquent in every direction possible. Desperate to make sense of the senseless; craving a need to point fingers elsewhere. Seizing an opportunity that might allow us to push forward some bit of legislation or another. Frantically, loudly, trying to return our collective consciousness back to a point of stability we’re familiar with; where we’re comfortable again. These days that looks like a few people, or a pair, neatly and quickly laying out opposing views as if the world were so simple we could define everything as either “Purple” or “Not Purple”; most notably articulated by former president George W. Bush in an address to a joint session of Congress on Sept 20, 2001. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” …He may have framed the next decade for us with those words.
All the voices clamor for our attention! ‘Better gun control laws would have stopped this assassin from buying a gun.’ (Forgetting that he had no prior record or tipped any criminal notice, so how could we have flagged him?.) Or we get Rush Limbaugh’s split-personality finger pointing. On one hand saying, “What Mr. Loughner (referring to the alleged gunman) knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country. He’s sitting there in jail. He knows what’s going on, he knows that…the Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame. He knows if he plays his cards right, he’s just a victim….”[2] While on the other hand we can see photos of advertisements for Mr. Limbaugh where he calls himself a “straight shooter” amid a visual background of bullet holes. The giant-sized billboard remained up in Tucson, Arizona – sight of the shooting – until 9:30am Monday morning following the shooting.[3] (Both of the links to these news stories are on my Facebook page, and will be posted with the sermon on Tuesday to our website should you wish to see the photos for yourself.)

All the voices clamor for our attention! ‘Sarah Palin should be accountable for drawing bull’s eye’s over congressional districts’ (Realizing that while her language choices are regretful, shameful and violent in nature, I’d ask ourselves to consider how often we use references to violence in our quest for social justice – for example. “Fight for the rights of …”, “Shoot down legislature…”, “Silence the opposition…”, “Community organizers who are hired guns.”

Let’s be real here, although she’s misguidedly taken it to the extreme, the fact is most of us have bought into that way of speaking. You can turn on the news and listen for 5 minutes to any politician on either side of the aisle, and you will hear at least one violent phrase just about every time. PTA’s will get far more “up in arms” about sex education in the schools than most members will ever get about violence on TV, cartoons and the movies. Our rating system for movies, and the access we grant children, skews more heavily against acts of sex and love than it does toward shooting. At its core, the blame for this atrocity begins and ends with the perpetrator of the violent act. If collectively, however, we want to investigate a different question – one that asks how our broader consciousness affects the life and world around us, and we only speak up to criticize others, we’re probably missing the point of such an exercise.
Our reading this morning by Pema Chodron is very spiritually instructive here. “When the flag goes up, we have an opportunity: we can stay with our painful emotion instead of spinning out. Staying is how we get the hang of gently catching ourselves when we’re about to let resentment harden into blame, righteousness, or alienation. It’s also how we keep from smoothing things over by talking ourselves into a sense of relief or inspiration. This is easier said than done. Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don’t interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge…. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment – over and over again.”[4]

What a challenging instruction! How are we staying with our collective emotional pain and how are we seeking to relieve ourselves with the tools of blame and righteousness? I imagine these questions themselves are almost the answer. The knee-jerk quest for the solutions to the act of terror that I’ve spoken at length about; that the barrage of pundits has enumerated this week; that the Facebook proliferation of petition’s that we’ve “liked” and done little more about; and the posters, screenshots, and ad campaigns grassroots groups have crafted all speak well to the latter half of the question. We adeptly implement tools that help us to manage the sense of loss of control; to alleviate the fear of a spiraling society where the extremes have greater access to voice than the broader middle; and we rebuild our way of thinking that bolsters our sense of rightness and “their” sense of wrongness.
I’m unclear if this strategy changes anything. It does maintain the stasis that existed prior to the mass shooting in Arizona. Prior to January 8th, we lived in a polarized society. After the shooting of January 8th, our society remains polarized, despite all the talking points. And none of those lives will be returned to us for all the talking points, all the gesticulating and all the righteousness in the world. The call for finding the middle ground isn’t really an answer either. The mythic middle ground is yet simply another belief, another viewpoint, another position. Sure we could add a third pundit in any piece of entertainment media we would like, but I fear it would simply be a vaguely more sophisticated way of confusing us into thinking we’re being more open-minded, more productive, more sane. No, we’d just be giving space for a third kind of sound byte. Chodren’s “habitual momentum” would remain in force.

As Unitarian Universalists, we hold in tension a theology that gives space for two pressures. On one side we value dialogue, conversation, and communication. Beliefs and viewpoints are expressions of personal human experience. It’s one of our valued religious sources. On the other hand, we lift up the reality that beliefs are ephemeral. As a creedless faith, beliefs are not at the core of our spirituality. How do we hold that in tension? The goal of conversation is where our 5th and 3rd principles unite; namely the communion of the democratic process with the call toward spiritual acceptance of one another. The goal of dialogue is consensus building, not winning over the other side. I hear a lot of debate these days; I see a fair bit of finger pointing; but I witness very little consensus building. In this regard, our practical challenge is to refocus our assumptions about success to how well we’re able to generate consensus rather than how well we can win a 51-49 vote or a 60-40 filibuster break. Consensus building is what we teach our youth here, and it’s what we hope for with our congregational leadership process annually.
The spiritual challenge Pema Chodron calls us to, is a different matter. To remind us of her last words of advice from the reading, “…with practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge…. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment – over and over again.”[5] You know, we could easily ignore these words. We could say that we need practical solutions. But practical solutions won’t bring back the victims of assassinations. We could say we need to prevent these things from ever occurring again. That would be an ideal outcome, but as a goal, I imagine it would look a lot like a police state to secure if we were to try to achieve it through policies, laws and procedures. If we attempt that ideal outcome, however, through spiritual self-discipline, I feel we’d be spinning a few less wheels while getting a lot further along the way.

What does staying with a broken heart look like though? I’m not sure I could describe it directly, just like I couldn’t readily define love. But I can say that we find out what it would mean when we stop resorting to our everyday mini-escapes. When we resort to blaming, chastising, or herding the friends for a great batch of righteous gossip, we know we’ve utilized another one of our tools to escape. When we only listen to Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow – whichever one fits our personal preferences – we might be using an avoidance strategy. When we stop turning from the reality, and seek to be present to it – in its fullness – with the intention of self-transformation, we’re probably not using an avoidance tool. When we seek to change ourselves, in all our everydayness, we’re on the right path. In the big picture, the rest (the policies, the laws) may need to happen as well, but starting with ourselves will probably get us there faster – or may be the only way ever to even arrive. Real solutions, real transformation, happens most essentially, when the reasons for the change have become part of our nature. Rules and reactions can take us only so far. Character is the more helpful path, and that path is a very everyday one. That’s the business of the religious community and how it hopes to shape public discourse. Or in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr; “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. ~MLK, Strength to Love, 1963.” Friends, we’re at our best when we model these changes in our lives, and seek not to get caught up in the fevered noise that districts us from what our heart knows is true and right; compassion, moderation in speech and well-reasoned conviction. We can’t fix the world by succumbing to the same strategies that help to break our communities.

Our anthem this morning gets at the core of this message. Thanks to our soloist, Cameron Mitchell Bell, I now know that the song from the musical entitled Floyd Collings[6] “comes at the very end of the show where the lead character is speaking to God asking him all the questions we hear in the song before he finally accepts his death.” Our Music Director, Bill Peek, really picked an amazingly fitting piece this week for the message of the sermon. It culminates with the words, “Only heaven knows how glory goes, what each of us was meant to be. In the starlight, that is what we are. I can see so far…” We’re hearing the character’s struggle between knowing all the answers to what will come when we finally die. At the resolution, there’s a comfort that comes to us in not knowing. Only heaven knows how glory goes, what each of us was meant to be…. All the thinking in the world, all the beliefs we can craft, will not change this essential unknowing. What will happen to us? What is next? The character learns to see further when he comes to accept the lack of certitude alongside an increased awareness of where he is in this moment. In the starlight, that is what we are.
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[1] http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/martin-luther-king-day
[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/11/rush-limbaugh-jared-loughner-full-support-democrat_n_807543.html
[3] http://gawker.com/5732700/rush-limbaughs-tucson-billboard-is-just-perfect
[4] “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron; Shambala, Boston and London. p. 7-8. 2003.
[5] “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron; Shambala, Boston and London. p. 7-8. 2003.
[6] from a musical by Adam Guettel entitled Floyd Collins:

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