A STATE OF EMERGENCY
Charlottesville, the Soul Sickness in America, and a Call to a Moral Vision
James Ishmael Ford
A Sermon delivered at the
Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church
Costa Mesa, California
13 August 2017
Dear Friends, stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important to you as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before you the loftiest ideals, which has comforted you in sorrow, strengthened you for noble duty, and made the world beautiful for you. Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that you are worthy to be entrusted with this great message and that you are strong enough to work for a great true principle without counting the cost. Go on finding ever-newer applications of these truths and new enjoyments in their contemplation.
First, thank you for inviting me into your pulpit. We had planned that I would speak of our wondrous Unitarian Transcendentalist ancestor Margaret Fuller. But, circumstances have over taken us. I spoke to some of the congregation’s leaders about my sense that we needed to shift from that announced sermon and address the still ongoing events in Charlottesville.
Now, I am not your minister, with whom you have developed a relationship and who you have given that astonishing gift of our liberal tradition, the freedom of the pulpit. Reverend Sian Wiltshire has been charged to speak from the deepest places of her heart, engaged through the fires of the mind, and spoken with knowledge and love of this community. I cannot do that.
But, I am a part of the larger community. I am, if you will, a relative. Most of you who know me, know me as a Zen Buddhist priest and co-leader of the Monday night Zen group here. I am that. And, I’m dually credentialed. I am also a Unitarian Universalist minister, who served UU congregations for a quarter of a century before retiring from parish ministry two years ago. So, I am speaking out of that range of experience, and, very much, as one of you. Out of our common experience walking the ways of liberal religion.
If you’re not familiar with the run up to the Charlottesville demonstration, let me briefly outline what has happened. It started with some people announcing a protest of the removal of a statue honoring a Confederate general. It quickly became apparent this was going to be something big, an orgy of white supremacy. So, with that a call came to create a counter demonstration of religious liberals and others of good faith in favor of that new vision in the South, one that rejects the symbols of hatred that largely were put up in response to the Civil Rights movement.
Now, one of my favorite bloggers is Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station. He is a retired Navy chief warrant officer. I guess you’d have to call him a gun toting liberal. In the heat of these events Mr Wright posted four points about all this on his Facebook account. I find them all of use for our consideration, although, sadly, I cannot quote him directly because, well, how shall I say this: his penchant for colorful language. And this is, in case anyone is confused, a church. If you want it unvarnished go to Stonekettle Station, or follow him on Facebook.
His points are: one: the people who brought together the original demonstration are racist terrorists. I will unpack that in a moment. Two: the whole romance with the Confederacy is a symbol for an evil and long shadow of our country. Three: these people are in fact fascists, and we shouldn’t be pretending otherwise. No alt-right. Fascists. Okay, perhaps best called neo-fascists. And, four: Mr Trump has a whole lot of responsibility for this situation. To which I add a fifth point: There is a liberal religious response to this. And, more, understanding that response is critical, because there are siren songs calling us in directions of no use to anyone.
Let me take these in that order. First, the whole demonstration as it took shape was a flat out attempt at terrorism by a bunch of white supremacists. This was not a group of people exercising their right to free expression of support for southern culture. These people were marching with torches, okay, that they appeared to be Tiki torches from Pier One, did add a bit of left-field humor to the scene. But those torches are meant to remind people of Ku Klux Klan marches, it is meant to remind people of Nazi marches. These people brought guns, they brought clubs, they brought shields. There was no intention of this being any kind of peaceful demonstration. This was a provocation. There was ample reason for the governor to declare a state of emergency, which ultimately he did.
That car ramming into counter demonstrators, that was simply the fulfillment of the scene they were setting up. Terrorize the people. Let ‘em know you’re serious. Let them know if you stand up to them, you will be plowed down. And with that as I write these words down there are three dead, one killed by that act of terrorism, and two police offers killed when their helicopter crashed, and more than thirty hospitalized. Near as I can tell none of them from among the Fascist demonstrators.
Two: this whole thing about the Confederacy. The symbols of the Confederacy are a stalking horse for this white supremacist movement. It has nothing to do with authentic Southern culture which is about family and work and is something beautiful. It is worth noting the majority of these monuments to the Confederacy were built either at the beginning of the twentieth century, coincidentally just after the Plessy v Ferguson decision and the rise of the legally sanctioned Jim Crow era, or, in the heat of the modern Civil Rights movement starting in the mid 1950s right through the mid 1960s. These monuments were to a culture of racism, of white supremacy. And, they stand today as acts of terror, intended to strike fear into the hearts of people of color and anyone else who stands against that evil. It is past time to stop pretending the Confederacy and its symbols stand for anything else.
Three: This is a fascist or maybe slightly more accurately a neo-fascist movement. The flags flying among those burning torches were an amalgam of that Confederate battle flag and variations of Nazi and similar fascist symbols. The chants themselves were drawn from Nazi playbooks. There were the straight ahead anti-Semitic chants. Wafting with “You Will Not Replace Us,” was “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” And they were actually chanting “blood and soil.” To quote my old friend Kat Liu, “Blood and Soil (Blut und Boden) refers to a racist ideology that focuses on ethnicity based on two factors, ‘descent blood’ and possession of territory by only those of ‘descent blood.’” You can infer what descent blood is. It is past time to stop using euphemisms. The so-called alt-right: it’s a fascist movement made American. It is racist to the core. And it is violent.
I’m not saying those on the left were all angels. There are people of the left who think we’re merely getting our just deserts for the many, many shortcomings in the history of the republic, and actually seem to take pleasure in seeing the collapse of civil society. And, worse than that smugness, I have been chilled to the bone at several demonstrations I’ve attended over the years, at the people walking next to me, who were simply looking to burn it all down. Literally burn it down. But, this was not what was going on in Charlottesville, that sliver of the left were not the problem. There was no gray area like Mr Trump would have us believe.
There were fascists and there were those opposed to the fascists. Mr Trump, who cut his political teeth hustling a racist birther conspiracy was caught in the hard place between television cameras and, not to put too fine a point on it, his real base. Not the people who he conned into thinking he cared about them and their jobs in these hard times. His real base, those who hate the country becoming multicultural, where women and men are equal, where it doesn’t matter who you love, where it does not matter what the color of your skin is. The country, at least as he speaks and in his actions, that he hates is the one that cooperates beyond self-interest, and actually cares for those who have been left behind.
And, five. There is good news. There really is. I recall my reflection on the Sunday following the election of Mr Trump as president. And much of that remains true today. If you find the first four points true, I hope you find this fifth part useful.
First, I find myself thinking of the moral revival that is sweeping through the progressive spiritual community. Its most important voice is the Reverend Dr William Barber. Check him, the moral movement and fusion politics out. What this movement points to are the evils all around us, without turning from those that live in our individual hearts. The sliver I mentioned among us, is also something within us. Both and. And, the movement calls us back to our better angels. Not only for our own health, but in doing so, giving us a moral compass that will allow us to act in ways that might actually be helpful. And it is good to know we are not alone.
That said, have no doubt these are dangerous, dangerous times. The temptation is to join those who would just burn it down, hoping that maybe in the ashes something good might rise like some glorious phoenix. However, in my view, usually what rises from ashes is dust, and bones, and more ash. And that view of destruction actually misses the great intuitions of liberal religion. Which is that we have the capacity to see and to live into a better way.
I’ve long identified as a first and seventh principal preacher. That is I believe first in that call to the preciousness of every individual, actually the preciousness of everything that rises in this complex and multiply caused world. And, with that a direct pointing to that multiply caused world, that beautiful image of an interdependent web, where we all rise and fall together. We are born out of each other and this world. We live among all things as part, fully a part, with no extra part not of it. And when we fall, we fall together. Intimate. Intimate.
So, the call is first to remember we’re all in this together. The great image is that we are in fact all family. Even the fascist. Even the terrorist. Family. They need to be opposed. They need to be stopped. And that means stopped. But, all along the way, they are also family. And, so everything matters. There are no means and ends to argue about. There are only means. We’re all connected. Everything we do matters.
So, if this is true, if the great liberal message of our radical interdependence is true, how do we engage? What might a new incarnation of Universalism look like? I’ve been watching it morph and grow over the last decades. And, I have a couple of suggestions that might find resonance for many here.
For me I find a couple of things are critical. One is to not forget my practice. Me, I practice Zen, as you all know. What you may not know is that it is a discipline of embodied presence. It is regularly taking time to sit down, to shut up, and to pay attention. It isn’t the only one to do that. But I suggest now more than ever that we all recall the disciplines of recollection and presence, which each of us may have have found, already. If you have, keep to them. And, if you don’t have a practice, and I suspect there are several among us for whom this is true, find one.
There’s a powerful Japanese saying, insight without action is a dream. And action without insight is a nightmare. Clarity of mind and clarity of heart are essential if we’re to make our way through this world, where ends and means are one thing. What we, what you need is something that calls you to see big. For all of our sakes, find a way to see large.
Another important, so important thing is to recall the suffering of the world. Do not forget. We’re all in this together. For me this starts with the immigrant, the person of color, the LGBTQ person, women, everyone who finds themselves as the target of the fascist rhetoric of hate. But, also, to recall the hurt and fear that led so many people to support Mr Trump and walk with these people, but are not in fact of them. Well, even those who are in fact of them. Remember those who are afraid. This is critical. Look big, find your compassion, your ability to suffer with others.
And that’s the real secret sauce. For me the bottom line is recalling there is no separation. That’s the secret of the call of the Interdependent Web, that’s the heart of the New Universalism that is sweeping through the liberal religious community. This world is one of intimacy. The evil of the world arises when we don’t allow our individuality or our communal aspects, pretending one or the other is the only true. We are one and we are separate.
And within this mysterious truth, but truth nonetheless, we have to act. We stand in dangerous times. This republic can go in several directions. And there are no guarantees. But there is nowhere else to go. We must take a stand. We must choose how we will be, who we will be, and what we will do.
I think, feel, believe, if we can recall that last thing, that we are all of us in this together, that we are all of us, at the end, one; well, then ways through will appear. No guarantees. Never are. But, at least we will have a chance.
We met the enemy, and he is us. We met the friend, and he is us. That is the secret that will win the ultimate victory, if anything will. And this is our way. Looking inward, and reaching out a hand and acting. Heart with heart, and hand in hand, we will build a community of hope and possibility.
Of that I am as sure of as I am of my beating heart.
Amen, my friends. And, amen.