We are called to restore justice and dignity to all peoples, to champion love in this age of anger, to keep fear and nationalism from dividing the country and the world. Are we ready?
Order of Service
Sounding of the Chime
Prelude [All you need is love ] Jim Austin
Welcome and Announcements Mary-Beth Landy
Hymn 131 Love will Guide Us
Opening Words (Hillel) Jitendra Singh
Our opening words this morning are from Hillel the Elder, a Jewish philosopher from about 100 BC.
- If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
- But if I am only for myself, who am I?
- If not now, when?
Ringing of the Bell and Lighting of the Chalice
Congregational Affirmation Mary-Beth Landy
Celebrations and Concerns [lay minister]
Interlude for the Placing of Stones [Imagine] Jim Austin
Prayer and Silent Meditation (Affirmation 457) Jitendra Singh
I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
Offering “Love is My Religion” — Ziggy Marley Jim Austin
Reflections (Hillel’s three questions) Jitendra Singh
The Hillel questions use different Hebrew words for the self: ani (אני), li (ליי) and anochi (אנכי). Translating all of them to I loses a lot of the subtlety in the questions, so I’d like to peel them apart a little bit.
ani (אני) refers to one’s inner core – the most private part of the self. li (ליי) refers to one’s persona – that self which others see. So when in the first question he asks “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” he’s asking “if my inner self doesn’t tend to the persona, as a gardener tends her garden, who will?”.
Hillel is teaching us that if we do not reveal that “I” – the part of my self that is unique – then what value is there to li (ליי) or me, the persona that operates in the world? Is it just a shell, a conglomeration of societal elements originating in others?
And anochi (אנכי) refers to an even more expanded version of the self, one that includes oneself, one’s community, even God. So when he asks “if I’m only for myself, what am I?” he’s asking how one can distinguish oneself from the whole universe?
There is a unique “I” in the universe and it has only been entrusted to one human being: you. If that unique “I” does not somehow find expression, then the world will never know it. A precious unique “I” would have failed to be experienced. That would be tragic.
However, once that “I” has discovered its individuality and learned to express it, it needs to take the next step and bring it out into the world. Each of us has something unique to contribute and no one else can bring it into the world.
This sentiment is not unique to Judaism, of course. It’s the same sentiment that, 2000 years later, would propel Alan Watts to ask a hot dog vendor in New York to “make me one with everything.”
Hymn 347 Gather the Spirit
We are called, we are ready Jitendra Singh
Near the end of 1992 I boarded an airplane headed to New Delhi. I had a special date: I was going to meet my daughter for the first time, complete the adoption paperwork and bring her home. One of the two suitcases had baby things in it: baby formula, feeding bottles, enough diapers for a month, four onesies, a denim snugli and a Teddy Bear. I saw the lawyer first upon landing, then made my way to the Holy Cross Orphanage in New Delhi before they closed for the evening. It was Christmas Eve.
Mrs. Franklin at the orphanage brought out the baby, we played for a little while. She told me they were closing for the day and would be closed for three days following, and I should come back on the 28th. She asked me if I was ready. Twenty-five years later, I still remember the calm tone of my voice as I said “yes, I am”.1
I’ve been thinking about that period of my life as I prepared for this talk today. What makes us ready to do things we never expected to be called to do? Where do we find the courage to say, ever so calmly, “yes I am ready”.
[If I am not for myself, who will be for me?]
Since November 9 of last year, “what to do now” has been an existential question for many of us.
At first, my reaction was to just walk around Fresh Pond. The fresh air, the rhythmic pounding of feet on the fallen leaves was strangely therapeutic. The news was all bad. We cried a lot. We cried for our gay friends and family, wondering what would happen to them.
Born shortly after the partition of my country into India and Pakistan, I had grown up with stories of ethnic cleansing. A million people had died in that tragedy. Once in this country, I had consumed the history of WW2, of Kristallnacht, the Blitz and the holocaust. Back in 1990, I had had a chance to spend half a day with a 70-year-old gentleman, a survivor of Dachau and Auschwitz. I felt a personal connection not only to the events of history but also to the events unfolding before us.
The Age of Anger is upon us. A reprise of previous points in history: The 1930’s gave us Franco, Mussolini, Stalin and, of course, Hitler – each a strong man within their own sphere of influence2. It was followed after the war by the Marshall Plan, German unification, the EU – all symbols of generosity and cohesion, and well being.
That the spirit of the generosity has ended is readily visible as we hear about Europe not paying its fair share, about NATO being obsolete, about deference to nationalistic strong men at the expense of democratic institutions.
Answering Hillel’s questions propels a liberal congregation such as ours to do what we can to halt or slow the slide towards isolation, towards a suspicion of our neighbors, towards tribalism, towards fear of “the other.”
A few weeks later, a friend wrote me about Indivisible. Indivisible is a group started by ex-congressional staffers and their tactics are borrowed from the Tea Party but deployed in the opposite direction. They have achieved remarkable success by packing “Meet the Constituents” events held in districts of right-leaning representatives.
But we live in the Northeast! What could we possibly ask Elizabeth Warren to do that she’s not doing?
And how can we justify traveling to another state to try and convince people to vote as we’d like them to? Are we open to having them come here to convince us to vote differently? Extending the logic, would we be justified in trying to influence the elections in Russia?
So, really, what can we do?
Bridge the chasm3
It’s clear that we have a chasm in this country – a chasm that didn’t appear overnight, and not likely to be fixed overnight either. There’s been a lot of insult and injury.
That people feel insulted was dramatized by “I’m deplorable” T-shirts and Inaugural DeploraBalls and I think it needs to be fixed. I’m not suggesting that we need to accept racism, sexism or homophobia from working-class whites or anyone else. But we do need to live up to our progressive ideals by acknowledging social disadvantage more consistently. We just need to do it without the vitriol.
In “I am not your Negro,” James Baldwin says something very interesting: he says “white” is a way to describe power. It’s been that way for a long time.
For two generations after World War II, working-class whites enjoyed a middle-class standard of living without having gone to college, only to lose it in recent decades. Does their sense of entitlement reflect white privilege? Of course it does.
But something is seriously off when we dismiss the economic pain of working-class whites on the grounds that they have white privilege. Something is seriously off when suicide and drug & alcohol addiction rates among that population have skyrocketed in the last decade4.
Baldwin’s definition no longer holds: “white” no longer describes power for them.
As for our reaction, just because white is a privileged group in the aggregate doesn’t mean there is no need for compassion for some whites that are suffering5.
It doesn’t help to promise college for all. A significant population never went to college because they never wanted to. Some of them resented the kids near the top of the class. Perhaps we need to also think about providing well-paying jobs for the kids who didn’t want to go to college?
It doesn’t help when Tom Friedman, the “World is Flat” guy, talks about always learning and competing in the global marketplace. How does someone keep their competitive edge while also holding down a job and caring for a sick family member?
It’s not my purpose here to provide a prescription for how we might fix the economics in the country or the world. My sole goal is to think about how we can treat everyone with respect, how we had better show some love and compassion for those that have been left behind.
The popular trope in the mainstream media is to suggest that the folks in Red America are stupid or bigoted or somehow conned into supporting these policies. I refuse to accept that half the population of the country is stupid. Perhaps something else is going on?
The question I come to is this: how to explain Islam to your loving grandmother? And if she doesn’t get it, or thinks it’s an evil religion, do you call her bigoted and stupid? Do you start by explaining the origins and tenets of Islam – something you yourself have only tentative grasp of? And what do you do if your brother in Tennessee joins an evangelical congregation? Do you disown him?
[From ani (אני) to anokhi (אנכי)]
The same friend wrote me about Resistance School a few weeks later. It was organized by grad students at the Kennedy School but it’s not a formal Kennedy School offering. It was a series of four lectures each about 90 minutes followed by exercises. They’re not really about political action – more about political organizing – and there is a difference.
Political action is about getting hundreds or thousands of people to do something – call your senator, show up at a protest, write your congressman, that sort of thing. But fundamentally, political action is about a centrally coordinated operation that doesn’t require a lot of creativity from the participants.
Political organizing is more diffuse with more local autonomy and local action. It’s much more the kind of action this congregation is used to taking. And with political organizing, we’re not pushing or pulling a particular candidate. We’re more organized around issues, regardless of geography.
What’s our calling? As the bombs were dropping in Sarajevo one day, a musician was seen playing the cello in the public square. The newspaper reporters asked him why he was playing the cello at a time while the bombs were dropping. He said, why are they dropping bombs while I’m playing the cello?
Indeed, why shouldn’t we continue to focus on creativity and kindness even as the storms of anger gather around us?
[If not now, when]
Timothy Snyder is a historian at Yale specializing in Central and Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. If you haven’t seen his recent book, On Tyranny, you should. For one thing, it’s a lot lighter than his other books.
In a recent interview, he said:
We are still at a stage where protest is not illegal. We’re still at a stage where protest is not lethal. Those are the two big thresholds. We are still on the good side of both of those thresholds and so now is the time you want to pack in as much as you can because you could actually divert things.
How much time does American democracy have left before this poison becomes lethal and there is no path of return? He says:
We have to accept there is a time frame. Nobody can be sure how long this particular regime change with Trump will take, but there is a clock, and the clock really is ticking. It’s three years on the outside, but in more likelihood something like a year. In January 2018 we will probably have a pretty good idea which way this thing is going.
By summer of 2018, the electioneering will be in full swing, by that fall, the die for the 2018 elections will be cast. Personally, I’d like us to organize respectful interactions with people of all political persuasions on topics that affect us all: immigration, healthcare, the opioid crisis, … Not debates, rather, conversations and actions. Sometime this fall, the Social Justice committee would like to organize a series to watch the Resistance School videos and come up with our own issues we want to work on to make change happen.
Within our congregations, we have enough smarts, enough love & compassion and enough drive to make a meaningful impact. Two weeks ago, during the Flower communion service, we heard about how the Rev. Capek was sent to Dachau for his ecumenical preachings. We’re nowhere near being sent to the camps but would resistance always be safe for us? The signs at the moment are good but history has a way of surprising us. Best intentions aside, there is some personal risk to this.
Sue Costello from our congregation asked me a couple of months ago: “What are the causes you’re prepared to go to jail for?” Add that question to the three Hillel questions as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never done this sort of thing before. I used to be a timid engineer – happy to do my work and leave it at that. But we’re called. If we can make a little progress towards that goal, if we can make the life of my daughter and her generation a little freer, yes I’d go to jail for that.
If not now, when? Are we ready?
Hymn 170 We are a Gentle, Angry People
Where hate rules, let us bring love; where sorrow, joy.
Let us strive more to comfort others than to be comforted,
To understand others than to be understood,
To love others more than to be loved.
For it is in giving that we receive,
And in pardoning that we are pardoned.
Postlude “Get Up, Stand Up” — Bob Marley Jim Austin
Sources that inspired this talk but were not explicitly incorporated into the service:
- What is happening with the opioid epidemic. Nick Kristoff’s essay.
- The importance of enablers. Masha Gessen’s essay about how cluelessness of the leader is a sufficient condition for horrible outcomes; evil intention is not a necessary condition.
- The importance of followers, not leaders. Why the great leaders theory of history is wrong.
- The importance of keeping our humanity. Frank Bruni’s essay titled “I’m OK, you’re evil”.
- The importance of teaching tolerance on campuses. Frank Bruni’s essay.
- The importance of the rule of law. David Leonhart’s op-ed.
- The resurgence of the liberal left. Profile of Rev. William Barber, among others.
- Song: The souls are coming back. Holly Near on the importance of creativity. I love this song.
- A week later, Mrs. Franklin revealed that she had been instructed to not give me the baby if I came alone; she had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go against those instructions based on my demeanor that Christmas Eve.
- To the Indians and Africans, even Churchill had been an abominable strong man.
- Stop the politics of condescension.
- US suicide rate surges to a 30-year high.
- The term “privileged group” is used here preferentially as a stand in for privileged race or class or, in the Indian context, caste.