A Space Between Stories

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I stumbled upon an interesting website this past week. It’s curated by a Presbyterian minister named David Hayward. I hesitate to share the name of the site—oh, well, I will—it’s called nakedpastor.com. No—don’t even go there!

I was introduced to it through a cartoon that popped up on my Facebook page.

Two men are sitting together at a bar, enjoying their drinks.

The first man turns to the second and says “As a journalist, I want to tell the truth, but I’m under a lot of pressure to be popular and get good ratings.”

The second man replies, “I’m a pastor! I get it!”

That pretty much sums up how I’m feeling these days, and I expect that the sentiment runs true for a lot of my ministerial colleagues. The journalist wants to tell the truth about politics and still remain popular. The pastor wants to tell spiritual, religious, ethical truths and yet not rock the boat too much. They each want to focus on their own particular corner of the culture and the society. And both, I expect, find it difficult in these challenging days to discern any sharp line separating religion from politics and vice-versa.

It might be helpful, then to take a look at that line insofar as the government has drawn it. You are probably all familiar with the Johnson amendment, though perhaps you don’t know it by name. The amendment is named after then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who proposed it. It initiated a change to the federal tax code which had been made in 1954. Most of us know it by a particular provision called 501(c)(3).

This provision affects churches and other non-profit institutions. It prohibits such institutions from participating in any particular campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office. It has only to do with political campaigns. It does not prohibit such tax-exempt institutions from offering a critique of the government or any government official or policy, though, of course, churches, whatever their theological convictions, often have members whose political beliefs range across a fairly wide spectrum. It would be nice to believe that churches and religious institutions in general have decidedly different spheres of interest than political institutions, but insofar as both have an interest in social justice, that’s clearly not the case.

The Civil Rights movement in the United States, which we have spoken of more than once from this pulpit, is an example where leaders of religious groups and members of their congregations heeded the call to resist racism, bigotry, and prejudice in the laws and behaviors that disenfranchised African Americans from their rights as voters.

The recent call by members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota for religious leaders to support the tribe’s claim for justice under an 1851 treaty made with the U.S. government is another such example.

Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership in the resistance to the British Empire as the subcontinent of India sought its independence in the 1930s and 1940s is another example, though from another land. When it comes to issues of social justice, those in powerful government positions do not often enough have the same priorities as those whose ethical views are shaped by religious convictions. There is a tension here that must be recognized, and—once recognized—active engagement is called for in the name of spiritual integrity.

“Separation of church and state” is a phrase that we use to refer to a section of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It has two clauses: one called the “Establishment Clause,” the other the “Free Exercise Clause.” The text reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”—that’s the Establishment Clause. “Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”—that’s the Free Exercise Clause. Both have to do with the duty of the federal government to allow citizens to worship as they see fit. The government can’t tell us what to believe or what religion to practice, and it can’t get in the way of our expressing our religious beliefs freely. It does not limit religious freedom; it prohibits governmental interference. Our free speech is protected so long as we don’t, as an institution, try to influence the outcome of elections by supporting or opposing particular candidates. (As you may or may not be aware, our current President-elect is on record for wanting to repeal the Johnson Amendment, so that churches would be free to take partisan positions in elections without losing their non-profit status.)

The title of today’s sermon, “A Space Between Stories,” comes from an essay by Charles Eisenstein entitled “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story.” It sketches out his analysis of the situation we find ourselves in as a country, both the “story” we’ve believed ourselves to be part of until now and the new story that we have chosen for ourselves (if you take one position) or that has been imposed on us, if you take another.

In any event, there has been a shift in the political climate that promises drastic change; and the things that we have taken for granted are no longer to be taken for granted. The essay is the most useful commentary that I’ve seen about the election, so I want to share with you today some of his main points, knowing that not all of you will agree with them; and some of his guidance for making our way into the future, which I feel confident most of you will agree with.

Eisenstein points out that the reality we have become accustomed to includes “neoliberal economics, imperial wars, and resource extraction.” Some of the social realities we have been forced to accept include “The prison-industrial complex… endless wars, the surveillance state, the pipelines, (and) nuclear expansion.” The “old story” says that we have to accept these hard truths and in return receive some assurance of social progress through the advancement of women’s rights, rights of the LGBTQ community, and an increasing awareness of racial disparity. Under the incoming presidential administration this “sugarcoating” as Eisenstein calls it, will be stripped away, perhaps to be replaced with social conservatism in such areas as abortion rights and “traditional family values.”

An excerpt from the essay:

We are entering a time of great uncertainty. Institutions so enduring as to seem identical to reality itself may lose their legitimacy and dissolve. It may seem that the world is falling apart. For many, that process started on election night, when Trump’s victory provoked incredulity, shock, even vertigo. “I can’t believe this is happening!”

At such moments, it is a normal response to find someone to blame, as if identifying fault could restore the lost normality, and to lash out in anger. Hate and blame are convenient ways of making meaning out of a bewildering situation. Anyone who disputes the blame narrative may receive more hostility than the opponents themselves, as in wartime when pacifists are more reviled than the enemy.

Racism and misogyny are devastatingly real in this country, but to blame bigotry and sexism for voters’ repudiation of the Establishment is to deny the validity of their deep sense of betrayal and alienation. The vast majority of Trump voters were expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the system in the way most readily available to them. Millions of Obama voters voted for Trump (six states who went for Obama twice switched to Trump). Did they suddenly become racists in the last four years? The blame-the-racists (the fools, the yokels…) narrative generates a clear demarcation between good (us) and evil (them), but it does violence to the truth.

It also obscures an important root of racism: the anger displaced away from an oppressive system and its elites and onto other victims of that system. Finally, it employs the same dehumanization of the other that is the essence of racism and the precondition for war. Such is the cost of preserving a dying story. That is one reason why paroxysms of violence so often accompany a culture-defining story’s demise.

So, of course, we can choose the way dictated by “paroxysms of anger,” but in so doing, we are (1) legitimizing violence which we claim to abhor; and (2) buying into a “good vs. evil” paradigm that translates into “us vs. them.” And, if you find yourself naturally moving in that direction, I hear you. I need essays with the perspective of this one to help me manage my own feelings of anger and betrayal.

An old order is coming to an end and a new order has yet to be established. This is the “space between stories” that Eisenstein talks about. Both opportunities and dangers exist. The new story has not yet been written, though we’ve seen the draft in terms of cabinet appointments and attacks by tweet on ordinary citizens.

I am resisting reading most of the text of this piece to you, though some of the sections I skip are well worth your consideration. I’ll just continue with this for now:

As we enter a period of intensifying disorder, it is important to introduce a different kind of force to animate the structures that might appear after the old ones crumble. I would call it love if it weren’t for the risk of triggering your New Age bullshit detector, and besides, how does one practically bring love into the world in the realm of politics? So let’s start with empathy. Politically, empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in this together. In what together? For starters, we are in the uncertainty together.

We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their savior has not the power to bring back the dead. Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer. We as a society are entering a space between stories, in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent comes into doubt.

For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But not for much longer. Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create perfunctory and unconvincing shibboleths… wandering aimlessly from “doctrine” to “doctrine” – and they have no idea what to do. Their haplessness and half-heartedness was plain to see in this election, their disbelief in their own propaganda, their cynicism. When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, you know its days are numbered. It is a shell with no engine, running on habit and momentum.

We are entering a space between stories.

The new story will proceed in fits and starts, some looking to the past, some with an evolving vision of the future; out of this, “an authentic new story will emerge.”

What would it take for the story to embody love, compassion, and interbeing? (Eisenstein) see(s) its lineaments in those marginal structures and practices that we call holistic, alternative, regenerative, and restorative. All of them source from empathy, the result of the compassionate inquiry: “What is it like to be you?”

This question—“What is it like to be you?”—is key, I think. Many of you know that I’ve been spending some time this year in visiting inmates at the Warren County Jail. As of this past week, I am visiting four inmates on a weekly basis, each visit lasting from 30 to 45 minutes. This question, “What is it like to be you?” is how I’ve approached these visits (though it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use that terminology until I saw it in this essay). People become real when you adopt this perspective. They stop being one-dimensional caricatures when you approach the stranger (the other, the Trump supporter) as a real flesh-and-blood person—a reality rather than an intellectual or ideological construct.

One woman I met for the first time last week. After years of dealing with the homeless and the marginalized, I bring a healthy dose of skepticism to these encounters. Though I look at each inmate with eyes that seek to know their truth, I know that street survival skills have often taught them impressive ways to deceive those interested in helping them.

But, that skepticism isn’t a weapon or a shield; it’s a frank appraisal of the ground of engagement. It usually doesn’t take too long to establish a rapport, as long as I’m not trying to sell them any predigested religious vision, as long as I’m looking for the truth of their experience to the extent that they are willing to share it.

This past week, I met a 28-year-old woman pregnant with her fourth child by the third of three men. It’s clear that she is without a goal or a direction, that she has never established for herself a coherent identity, that her life has been a pattern of escape into drugs when things get “too real” and that she’s sought a sense of identity by attaching herself to men who, sooner or later, betray her and leave her stranded once more. When I pressed for some details about these liaisons, the conversation made its way to her love for her deceased mother and her recognition of her own inadequacies in serving as a mother to her children. Once the tears began, they did not stop for quite a while.

Sometimes hurt is masked by bravado. She says she reads the Bible every day and that her favorite book is the Psalms. I left a book of the Psalms and the Proverbs at the reception desk to be given to her; it has a space for notes after each five psalms. I asked her to write her reflections to begin to craft a sense of the thread that runs through them that also runs through her understanding of the world. Whatever success she achieves, I know at least that she benefits from someone visiting, listening, offering a guiding word, challenging her when she uses excuses to deceive herself.

“What is it like to be you?” is a powerful question.

Eisenstein says:

It is time now to bring this question and the empathy it arouses into our political discourse as a new animating force. If you are appalled at the election outcome and feel the call of hate, perhaps try asking yourself, “What is it like to be a Trump supporter?” Ask it not with a patronizing condescension, but for real, looking underneath the caricature of misogynist and bigot to find the real person.

Even if the person you face IS a misogynist or bigot, ask, “Is this who they are, really?” Ask what confluence of circumstances, social, economic, and biographical, may have brought them there. You may still not know how to engage them, but at least you will not be on the warpath automatically. We hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not know. So let’s stop making our opponents invisible behind a caricature of evil.

What lies behind hate? Eisenstein quotes a colleague, “Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.” This is much like the quote from James Baldwin that you may have seen: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

A final quote from Charles Eisenstein: “We are all victims of the same world-dominating machine, suffering different mutations of the same wound of separation. Something hurts in there. We live in a civilization that has robbed nearly all of us of deep community, intimate connection with nature, unconditional love, freedom to explore the kingdom of childhood and so much more… Suicide is the leading cause of death in the military… addiction is rampant among the police…depression is epidemic in the upper middle class. We are all in this together.”

So, if you find yourself blinded by hate sometimes, look beneath it as if it is a veil and search for the grief that lies behind it. The practical advice I can give to you is to take a time each day to sit with yourself and by yourself, on a meditation cushion, maybe, and with your eyes closed. Get to know yourself better; get to see and feel the pain that lies disguised underneath the anger, the frustration, even the hate, if you find yourself preoccupied by these strong emotional responses.

Last week, I asked you to think more deeply than usual about your religious or theological beliefs. You provided a wide range of responses when I asked which outlooks and traditions most affect the way you look at the world. Remember the words you wrote if you were here last week. In what way do these teachings help you to make your way in the world in a way that is healthy, productive and regenerative?

Many of you cited our church’s mission statement as central or important in your spiritual life. It states that our mission, first of all, is to be a caring community. Start by caring for yourself. Take some time, each day, if possible, to place yourself in a natural setting. It may seem that our culture’s narrative is permanent and reliable: the natural world has been around a good deal longer than our cultural world. It is enduring and restorative; spend some time connecting with that vast network of life and feel restored.

Our mission statement also calls us to spiritual growth. Consider the thoughts of Charles Eisenstein I’ve presented to you today: certainly, they call us to grow beyond what may be a conditioned response to ideas rather than persons.

Our mission statement also calls us to “actively work to improve our society and the environment.” I have recently renewed my membership with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth—I intend to be active in that group’s efforts to fight against bigotry and prejudice. After meeting with the co-founder to get a better sense of its mission, I just joined a newly formed group called “Organized Front,” which aims to help activist groups in Bowling Green to communicate with one another.

But you don’t have to wander far afield. By joining our church’s Social Justice Action Committee, your views are heard and you help shape the things we do to advance the cause of justice in this community and beyond. And take the wearing of the safety pin seriously. Let people know that you are a friendly and trustworthy presence.

Take the time to write a letter to the editor of the Daily News newspaper when you read of or see a proposal or a position that demeans a segment of the population or that seeks to promote division. Speak up!

And in this Advent season, look for ways to bring hope and love and joy and peace into the circles in which you travel. As a stone dropped into a still pool causes ripples that travel on and on, small gestures of kindness can affect the lives of others in ways beyond what you can see in front of your eyes.

We are in a space between stories. In such a space, all our words and actions take on an added dimension as we create together a new story, one in which empathy and compassion hold the center and the spirit of justice-seeking infuses our lives. As the Rev. Meg Riley said in her December 8 message from the Church of the Larger Fellowship: Our job is to hold a moral center in a world which sometimes seems entirely without one. It will only be if we make it be.

 

Sources:

 

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on December 11, 2016.

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