Friday, April 13, 2018

Sermon: Rav, Shmuel and Martin Luther King

delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence on April 8, 2018 
Today I want to talk about two events that took place last week. The first is Passover and the 2nd was the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. King. Hopefully at the end I'll be able to bring the two pieces together.
So Passover is the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom. I say the beginning of freedom because although in one very important way the Israelites are freed – they are no longer in servitude – in another way they are just getting started.
The haggadah – the ritual guide to the seder service – talks about a conversation between two rabbis, Shmuel and Rav. They're study buddies, and in the rabbinic tradition argumentation is an important means of getting at spiritual truth. So the question is, is slavery in the Exodus story a physical thing or a spiritual thing? Are we talking about actual, physical slavery – working without recompense – or are we talking about spiritual slavery, which Rav says is idol worship that our ancestors did before they came to the realization of the one God. And of course the answer is, both.
So that's the framing I want to lay out for my talk: physical slavery and spiritual slavery. They're both important – equally important. We do tend to go toward one or the other – those of us who do justice work really tend to underplay the spiritual aspect, and people who see themselves as spiritual people tend to hold off or ignore the spiritual piece.
So the model I'm promoting of “faith-based advocacy” tries to address that imbalance. It's not simply that “our sacred traditions teach us that caring for the poor is important.” That's one part, certainly an important part. And it's not just that justice work is itself spiritual. It's that the strength we need to do this work, and the balance that we need to do it effectively, comes from our dedication to our spiritual work.
I read a wonderful book called Radical Dharma, written by a couple of African American Buddhist teachers, angel Kyodo Williams and Lama Rod Owens. I highly recommend it. The book is largely about how these two teachers were able to work with (not through) their trauma in their meditation practice, and the challenges they've faced being a part of almost exclusively white dharma communities. The central concept, which strikes me as complete genius, is that liberation inside is inextricable from liberation outside – and vice versa.
The Rav/Shmuel paradigm – or the Radical Dharma paradigm – tells us that we cannot be liberated spiritually without all of creation being liberated, and – concomitantly – that our social justice work depends on our self-liberation, our spiritual development as well. That's really true – truer than we usually mean when we say it. None of us are free until all of us free! Not just every one of us, but every part of us. Let me say it a different way: personal spiritual development depends on engaging with the world in a way that moves toward liberation for all. Liberation for all depends on personal and communal spiritual connection and growth. We cannot be our full selves while we ignore, or push away, the suffering of others. None of us are free until all of us free.
Now, to turn back to the Passover story. When we look at the story of the Exodus, we usually think we're talking about physical slavery. And how hard it is to get out of that – just to get out of that! Despite how obvious the injustice is to the outside observer, and in the perspective of time, at the time expecting the slave-master to just release their holdings is the most radical and incomprehensible thing possible. In American chattel slavery – the value of the slaves as property was more than the entire physical infrastructure of the country. And you're expecting us to just give that up? No wonder they hated the abolitionists so much.
So Moses has this vision of God and then comes to Pharaoh and says, Let my people go! And Pharaoh's response is – I don't think so! And so there's all this drama, plagues are visited upon the Egyptians, including the death of their first born, really horrible stuff, and finally after all that Pharaoh lets them go. And then he has a change of heart and sends his army after them – power is a powerful drug - and they get drowned in the Sea, and only then is slavery really over, are they free.
In our country it took the bloodletting of the civil war to get to that stage. 600,000 dead on the battlefield before they were able to pass the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and make slavery a thing of the past – although if you've seen the movie 13 you know that they left an out in there too.
So all this, plagues, civil war, and you get to the end of chattel slavery. And you know what? That was the easy part! OMG! Now you've got the Rav part, the spiritual part. In the Exodus story the freed slaves then have to go through this whole long process to get out of the spiritual slavery. They get the 10 commandments, they get all these instructions, and yet whenever they get into a tough spot they say, Can we go back? They had onions there, and fleshpots and stuff. It ends up taking 40 years – the death of an entire generation – before they're ready to move on to the next stage – entering the promised land.
In America it's even more complicated than that, because there isn't this nice dividing line where physical slavery is over. 15 years after the end of the civil war Reconstruction is ended and there follows an entire century of segregation and lynchings, racial terrorism. In the north you don't even have chattel slavery but you have this legacy of segregation, represented by how Chicago reacted to Dr. King when he held up a mirror to their face. In Kansas City we invented red-lining and block-busting. Linda Brown of Brown v. Board just died. Kansas was on the wrong side of that one. Then we get desegregation and civil rights movement, and through that we get the end of de jure segregation but we still have ghettoization and the lack of resources in the inner city, the trauma of gun violence and drug use and a permanently depressed inner-city economy. So when in all that does physical oppression end? When is the part of the Shmuel story over? When do the people who were / are oppressed get to get on with the arduous task of rebuilding themselves spiritually?
Then there's the cost of being the oppressor. The spiritual costs that accrue to those on the top of the racial and economic hierarchy as well. That Nelson Mandela quote. I think we can see that really clearly today, but it's been a factor throughout American history. Race is used as a way to split working people apart, giving white people the illusion of superiority while it deprives them of autonomy and economic security. Lyndon Johnson famously said, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you." We can't have universal health care because of the danger that some unworthy black people will benefit from it.
OK, that's on the Shmuel side, and of course it would be ridiculous to say that white people suffer from the racial divide in anything approaching the continuing costs paid to this day by black people. But Nelson Mandela wasn't talking about Shmuel costs, he was talking about Rav costs – about spiritual costs. And this is something white people face all the time, but that we don't acknowledge or even recognize. Middle class white people are middle class largely because of the oppression that is visited on others, because if resources were fairly distributed in this country then we wouldn't be as affluent as we are. That's a simple fact. So that puts us into a comparable position to the slaveholder, or the Egyptian, who sees the possibility of freedom for the oppressed as a direct threat to their well-being.
But we don't take into account the karmic cost of oppression. When we benefit from the oppression of others it has a spiritual cost to us. There's unexpressed deep feelings of guilt and pain in that that we either suppress or act out in other ways, like violence or voting for Donald Trump. Doubling down on oppression.
For an illustrative example I want to be a little self-revealing here and talk about something I don't usually talk about. On the night before the Passover seder the Israeli army opened fire on a mass gathering of Palestinians from Gaza protesting against their treatment. I am proud of the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, working for justice, but it's pretty clear that the state that speaks in our name, and that is protected by our political power, is a force for injustice and oppression. The Israeli Jew is in the position of the white American – convinced that justice makes them vulnerable. I honestly think they're think they're protecting themselves. But what are we left with when we use our beautiful spiritual tradition as a weapon against another people? People like me have been talking for years about the moral costs of occupation, and we take no particular pleasure in being proved right. The costs to the oppressor are less obvious than the costs to the oppressed in significant ways, more abstract, but they're there.
So don't look at that example and say, that's them and not us. I'm bringing the example because it's them and it's us. It's not enough to say, that's not me – I'm not Israeli, I'm not a Trump voter – because it is us. It's us because whatever our feelings about it, we benefit from the injustices that are visited on others in our names. I'm not talking about feeling guilty – guilt is irrelevant. You've heard the saying, none are guilty but all are responsible? That's what I'm talking about. I'm talking about recognizing the way things are, taking responsibility for them, and acting in whatever way is available to us to change them. And the way to do that is by seeking out and performing acts of solidarity with the oppressed.
And that brings us to Dr. King.
You're probably aware that Dr. King was pretty unpopular in his time, especially after the Riverside Church speech, but really all along. White liberals were okay with him as long as he was calling out racism in the south, but not so much when he was calling out segregation in the north – and when he began to call attention to the intersections of injustice, the ways that racism, poverty, and militarism reinforce each other, are part of the same system of injustice, then that was too far.
I want to take a moment to appreciate the sheer bravery of what Dr. King was doing in the last year of his life. He had led the movement that successfully passed legislation addressing some of the greatest injustices in the country: the right to vote, the right to public accommodation, etc. There was an administration that at least purported to want to address the issue of poverty – we could only dream of such a thing these days. Yet instead of resting on his laurels or building his nonprofit sinecure he deepened his analysis, criticized the war and moved toward organizing poor people. In this he alienated Johnson and many of his white sort-of supporters. It's amazing to think about. When I think of the modest inconveniences that accrue from my own activism work, it pales in comparison.
In order to get a holiday and a spot on the national mall his legacy had to be domesticated, but his legacy is a radical one.
Systemic racism, systemic poverty, the war economy, and environmental destruction. How they are intertwined.
Poor peoples campaign.
Now I want to return to the Rav/Shmuel dichotomy. I can't help thinking that so many of the issues we're facing today are karmic in origin – reaping what we sow. Not necessarily individual karma, but our karma as a community, or as a nation. We have gun violence because we've allowed violence, because we've caused violence. It's noted that the conversation only really gets going when suburban kids get shot in school, even though there's gunfire in Wyandotte, Topeka and Kansas City every single night. Climate change – we treated the earth as an endless resource and an endless trash heap, and we didn't care so much when Pakistan was under water, but when the price is paid in Houston or California we may finally take some notice. A 2010 study by AARP found that one out of three adults 45 and over reported being chronically lonely (meaning they’ve been lonely for a long time) – this is the cost of our hyper-individualism. 63,600 lives were lost to drug overdose in 2016, 66% of them from opiods every year. So when say karmic costs, when we say spiritual costs, I don't mean to say that they're intangible. These things are very tangible. Opioid addiction may be a physical slavery – a Shmuel issue, but its source is in a spiritual Illness that is too rampant in our society – a Rav issue.
And as with any spiritual malady, it requires a lot of hard work. We talked a little about activism, and we talked a little about the importance of a personal spiritual practice, now we talk about bringing these two aspects together. This is about the spiritual work that white people have to do to work through their fears and their attachment to being on the side of injustice and oppression. The work that white people have to do – again, even if we think we're blameless, that our parents came after slavery or that we belong to a congregation that knows that black lives matter, we still have sit with and work with our karmic costs. Leaving these aspects, these feelings, unexamined makes us defensive, or unskilled. That's the place where “not all white people” come from. To some extent, yes, it is all white people Because we reap the benefits of a society that is tilted in our favor, and it won't change unless we do this work. The external work, and also the internal work.
And as I move to the conclusion, I want to posit three dimensions of the work that we need to do as we live in and through this challenging dangerous time. These come from the the work of the great Buddhist and eco-spiritual elder, Joanna Macy, and correspond “the three dimensions of the great turning.” They are resistance, resilience, and love.
Resistance. We are in a situation where the institutions we always assumed would protect us – Congress, or the press, or the Supreme Court, or the Democratic Party – are in an ongoing state of crisis or collapse. Trump is a symptom of a process that has been going on for over 30 years – the privatization of every aspect of human life, and the eradication of the idea that we're all in this together. The only thing that is going to protect us is each other, and that means massive pressure put on the levers of power. After the first women's march I wondered if the hundreds of thousands of people who were active for the first time would stick around past either the initial flush of excitement, or the setbacks and disappointments that were sure to come. The growing movement of young people around March for Our Lives, particularly the way they're purposefully including police violence and black lives in their work, is a hopeful sign of continuing activity. And then of course we'll have to see how resistance translates into the ballot box in November.
Resilience. When we're stuck in a purely reactive response, we held to strengthn what we're fighting against. Jung said, “What we resist, persists,” and it's as true in activism as it is in therapy. In order to move ourselves forward we have to partner our resistance with resilience – with building the world we want. We can also think of this as building. Gandhi called it “constructive program”. Resistance is obstructive, and resilience is constructive. It's time for us to begin to build the world we want to see, whether or not the government or the corporations cooperate. We have to build in three areas:
community – rebuilding, slowly and painstakingly, the connections between people and between communities that have been pulled apart by libertarian philosophy and corporate propaganda.
The structures and strategies of the next period. We need to build access to the things we need to survive and thrive in a climate-changed world: access to fresh food and water, the knowledge that our grandparents had of how to preserve, developing a decentralized electrical grid, and more.
We have to begin to build an economy and a political order that works for the many, and not just for the few. We've got to stop picking at the edges of a broken system. Until we are willing to ask for what we want and need: truly universal, affordable healthcare, an end to the war machine at home and abroad, money out of politics, the clean energy economy; until we are ready to, Demand the Impossible; until we are ready, both to stand against the injustices of the old world, in spite of the cost, and to work in pursuit of of the new world, the just world -- then we are never going to get it.
And love. This is the Rav paradigm: spiritual awakening – a shift in consciousness. I think about this a lot, and I know that Dr. King's insistence on love sounds to our cynical ears like so much 60s nostalgia. I know there are people who want to do us harm, and there are even more who don't care about us one way or the other. And I know that it's very easy for me, as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy to tell people they should love their enemies.
But what else can we do? We know from the history of the 20th century that the ends don't justify the means – to most of us, the means are the only end we're ever likely to see.
The energy that fuels this work – that fuels the standing against injustice, that fuels our ability to sit with our pain and heartbreak, that fuels our ability to build within ourselves the capacity to grow, to get over ourselves, and to put ourselves out in the world, is love. It's humility over arrogance, it's sharing over hoarding, it's patience as opposed to aggression, it's cooperation as opposed to competition. It's communal over individual. It's nonviolent over violence. It's the force in the universe enables deliverance and salvation. Some call it God. But we'll call it love.
This work is demanding, it's challenging, and there's no guarantee at all that it will have a positive result. Part of what we have to move away from is the our addiction to positive outcomes. We have only to do the work, and leave the results in God's hands.
Doctor King said:
Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.
I conclude with a prayer from the book I recommended before, Radical Dharma:
May all beings be granted with the strength, determination and wisdom to extinguish anger and reject violence as a way.
May all suffering cease and may I seek, find and fully realize the love and compassion that already lives within me and allow them to inspire and permeate my every action.
May I exercise the precious gift of choice and the power to change that which makes me uniquely human and is the only true path to liberation.
My I swiftly reach complete, effortless freedom so that my fearless, unhindered action be a benefit to all.
May I lead the life of a warrior.

(From Radical Dharma p.93-94)

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