This sermon explores the role of faith in responding to the rise of White Nationalism.
I learned something about eagles a short time ago. You see them a lot on car commercials, when the company wants to sell power or patriotism. The car zooms buy, probably on a majestic curve at high speeds (a totally realistic portrayal of drivers our here, by the by) and then an eagle soars overhead, and you hear the majestic cry of the symbol of our nation. The only problem, is that the bird cry we hear, is that of a hawk, not of an eagle. Hawks sound more like powerful predators to our ears, so all the voiceovers swap in hawk-sound. Eagles sound like most other birds – they have this high pitch, but cute range of sounds. They even can make a noise that, to my ear, sounds almost like the laugh of a hyena. Cute, sure, but not powerful.
I totally get why companies would swap out the sounds to sell more cars; power and patriotism are strong motivators for our consumerist culture. But it’s so pervasive, that it took me more than 40 years to learn what our national emblem sounds like – because of capitalism. I’m not sure I can think of a better metaphor for our national crisis than this. We identify nationalism with patriotism, and patriotism with force and power, and we overlay that with our national emblem the eagle. I remember as a kid learning that Benjamin Franklin wanted our national emblem to be the turkey – because wild turkeys are apparently one of the most intelligent birds. He lost out to an apex predator. And the eagle won’t do today, if it sounds like a laughing hyena, so we make it sound like what we value – power. It’s the modern trinity, our contemporary idolatry – power, patriotism, and purchasing power. We like power so much, we say it twice.
As we slip toward fascism – and I don’t use that word lightly. As reminder, fascism is a political ideology that seeks: 1) to centralize capital (make the rich richer), 2) demonize a racial, ethnic, religious or sexual or gender identity (think Muslims, Arabs, or Latinos, and the LGBTQ communties) 3) usually uses protectionist economic policies to create the illusion of national self-sufficiency. 4) A disdain for democratic norms, and 5) the call for increasing militarism. As we slip toward fascism, knowing our history, naming a thing for what it is, and a rigorous quest for facts, become more and more critical to our democracy. This is why, learning that I’ve been taught a lie about what an eagle sounds like, bothers me so – and why that lesson is so important as we enter into this Post-Fact era in our nation’s story.
Changing the voice of the eagle to match our need for power in our patriotism, is the spirit of our times (the zeitgeist for today.) In our post-fact era, we demand reality conform to our opinions. This is most prevalent in the rise of white supremacy on our streets. Whites are beginning to shift into the minority in our nation; and Whites haven’t been the global majority ever. And as equal rights are gaining enough ground that folks who have historically enjoyed privileges at the expense of others, begin to have their privileges leveled – White folk, Men, and Heterosexuals – that leveling is experienced as oppression. And with being treated more equally than before, white supremacy surfaces in the broad daylight again; never gone, always dangerous, but more obvious to White America these days. The clarion call of the commercialized patriotic bald eagle – always strident, never nuanced, and speaking with someone else’s voice, in order to sell a set of goods – could be the perfect emblem for this rise of white nationalism. I would mock it, if it weren’t so deadly dangerous to the fabric of our nation.
Religion today, at its best, needs to address the dangers of this post-fact era. It needs to do its part in staving off the worst excesses, and inoculating our children from growing up believing in this dangerous nonsense, that props up bellicose lone male figures as powerful, when they are merely petty; as charismatic rather than charlatans; as populist when they mean white nationalist; confusing opinion with reality – especially when those opinions are universally used to benefit some at the expense of the majority of others.
What is Faith to do in response to all this. This central problem to our religious life is explored by the theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, although she’s writing around the turn of this century, and exploring the nature of oppression, belief, and justice. She would expand the discipline of liberation theology and center the experience of Latina women as a community. This branch of contemporary theology is known as mujeristatheology. She would argue that, “New narratives help us to see and to value parts of ourselves that we have ignored or that we do not know well, and they help us to know ourselves differently from the way oppressors define us.” In our post-fact era, knowing our own stories becomes even more critical, as the forces of oppression and hate continue to literally make everything up as they go.
Diaz writes, “As social beings we are called to relate to all those around us and this we can do in a nondiscriminatory way only if we emphasize what connects us, if we understand the injuries produced by exclusion and isolation. Decentralizing ourselves would help us to be cognizant of what connects us, and to do this we must stop making ourselves the point of reference.”She’ll go on to explain this with an example of what she calls “boomerang perception.” She gives an example of a white mom who sends her daughter to her first day of school. When her daughter comes home she mentions that she has a Hispanic classmate. “Not wanting her daughter to be racist, reassures her by telling her that there is nothing to worry about, that the little Hispanic girl is just like she is. It is very difficult to imagine that such a mother in today’s society would tell her daughter, ‘Do not worry, you are just like that Hispanic girl.’ The mother’s comment reasserts the centrality and normativity of the dominant race and culture.”
Whose stories get centered, and whose stories get a forced make-over, is the dominant challenge of faith in our post-fact era. Diaz is talking about race, and it’s especially relevant to the rise of white nationalism on our streets, and in our White House. And we can also make room for the reality that White Supremacy is also patriarchal and sexist. Reasserting the centrality and normativity of the dominant race and culture isn’t only alone race lines. Sexuality, family make-up, and gender all experience this. I recall in my former career of Information Technology – when my boss (a woman) and I would go out in the field to solve a more complicated problem – people would often turn to me for the second or final call, rather than take the opinion of my female supervisor. I recall getting in the habit, when that would happen, of turning my body to face my female boss, and wait for her to answer again. I remember my godmother, back when I was a kid, she was the second certified female electrician in NJ – the second. She finally gave up that career, because she got sick and tired of going onto the same work sites day after day, and being asked to prove she was who she was to do the job – as if they didn’t see her every other day. She went back to school – again – to be a nurse – from all that dominant culture reasserting its norms. Even our denomination can be guilty of this. We often celebrate that 60% of our clergy our women, and about 20% of our clergy are LGBT – far ahead of (I believe) all other mainline denominations. But both women and LGBT ministers are in the extreme minority when we look at which ministers lead our largest congregations. And to be fair, I should add here though, that our local Long Island UU congregations are entirely led by ministers of color, women and LGBT clergy right now – we do not fit the denominational norm.
So let’s all be careful, let’s all be vigilant to what story – or whose story – gets centered over and over again, because it has real repercussion in our everyday experiences. And right now, it appears that a white nationalist story is getting centered more and more. One role of faith in our lives, is to push against this. Many of you have noticed, that for the past several years, all of our paid guest preachers, have been women, people of color and transfolk. It’s not by accident. We are all healthier for learning from the range of human experiences. We are spiritually more whole, the more we are pushed to not center our own perspective as objective reality. It can be a spiritual practice to bear witness to the witness of others. Compassion, for the sake of compassion, is a religious expression. It’s also the path to building the beloved community – even and especially – within this troubling time.
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s theology is an especially good answer to the poison of white nationalism. Where white nationalism props up an individual racial group as superior and powerful – as sincere as the eagle dubbed over with a hawk’s cry – Diaz focuses her theology on what she calls lo cotidiano. It’s a Spanish word that means everyday. As in, our everyday doings and strivings, of everyday people. “…lo cotidiano has to do with the simple reality of life…to those immediate necessities, to the crises that grassroot people have to face daily, and to the wisdom they show when, in some way or other, they survive.” So, if theology, when it comes down to it, is how we make and understand meaning in our lives – Diaz is asking us to do theology based on the everyday struggles for life and meaning to survive – rather than the stories of power and privilege we are too often raised to lift up.Faith in a post-fact era is being in relationship with, and bearing witness to the pain caused upon those most impacted by the degradations of power and privilege. I think about the work so many of our members and friends did this winter helping to run our HIHI shelter for men; centering the needs and stories of someone other than ourselves. I think about all our members who are part of Huntington’s Rapid Response Network – literally agreeing to bear witness and accompany an immigrant facing immigration court; centering someone else’s story. And in the act of bearing witness, not only are we helping someone feel less alone and lost in our system, but research shows that judges rule more favorably toward immigrants who have connections to the community. Faith in this post-fact era may not be able to argue our way to people believing facts again, over opinions, but we can do our part in reknitting community by bearing witness to people, and their everyday struggles. We may not be able to argue our way through, but maybe we can be the models for the world we want to create.
La Lucha Continues. p.80