James Ishmael Ford
13 November 2016
Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula
Santa Paula, California
“As we come to know the seriousness of the situation, the war, the racism, the poverty in our world, we come to realize that things will not be changed simply by words or demonstrations. Rather, it’s a question of living one’s life in a way drastically different way.” Dorothy Day
First I want to say that Reverend Maddie really wanted to be with you all today. But her long time scheduled prior commitment was simply unavoidable. I’m deeply honored that she has entrusted me with your hearts at this moment where words are extremely problematic, and can so easily be more harmful than useful. I will do my best in this moment.
So, first to summarize my sense of where we are, perhaps you’ve seen that Facebook meme? There are a couple of versions floating around on the interwebs. The one I like best, if you take that word “like” in its broadest sense, consists of a conversation in two sentences, the first from England, “Brexit is the stupidest, most self-destructive act a country could undertake.” To which USA responds, “Hold my beer.”
Now, I can only assume that there are people here who voted for Mr Trump. And, I want to assure you that you have a place in this community. And, we all must confront what is going on, as best, and as clearly as we are capable. And, frankly, I think something awful just happened. Out of that I invite all of us whatever our political persuasion to a time of reflection. This place is, I hope we all know, many things. A refuge in the storm, for sure, but even more important, a community of reflection, a pause within the world of actions. So…
Tuesday night we scheduled our regular Zen meditation period at the Long Beach church to end early, allowing everyone who wished to return home to watch the election results as they came in. That’s what Jan and I did. And so we were there as the polls closed around the country. Me, I was dismayed as those results began to come in. It reminded me of a time years ago when I drove by the flaming conclusion to a car crash, somehow unable to stop watching. I can tell you I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since this election.
Now, as a Zen teacher I’m on occasion criticized for mixing up politics and religion. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, not so much, but it happens among us, as well. I find myself thinking of the variety of political views among us, and especially of that person who has voted for Mr Trump. There is a real question buried in the criticism of mixing up religion and politics. Well, two.
One frankly is bogus. That’s the idea “authentic” religion has nothing to do with the mess of life. Its supposed to be about getting away from the bad things, not being caught up in the to and fro, not being attached to the passing show, or dirtied by the messy world. Frankly, any religion that is unconcerned with our actual human condition and the consequences of our actions on this planet, well, that religion isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.
The other is real. And it is hard. We are here in a sacred space, dedicated to the exploration of our hearts and minds and to finding that which gives us life and purpose. It demands humility. So, how do we know our particular political view is informed by our deepest spiritual insight, is a consequence of our discoveries about the human heart and our human condition, or is simply one more manifestation of the apparently endlessly arising demons gnawing at each of us, of greed, and of hatred, and of endless self-deceptions?
Me, as the results of the election unfolded, I experienced a cascade of emotions and thoughts. Possibly you will recognize some of them yourselves. Right off I felt like I’d awakened on the day after the apocalypse. To shift the metaphor it kind of feels like the ship of state that is our country has taken on a drunken captain, and it is about to launch on some strange, and, frankly, frightening cruise into iceberg infested waters.
As a member of what we here in America call the progressive community I am shocked and profoundly saddened by Mr Trump’s campaign from soup to nuts. He unapologetically appealed to fear of, if not outright hatred for pretty much all others. He famously mocked a reporter with disabilities, dismissed Mexicans as rapists, and bragged about sexually assaulting women. His persona throughout was that of a spoiled child, happy to engage in twitter wars, which at one point descended into bragging about the size of his genitalia. Frankly, as I saw it Mr Trump seemed to be little more than an incarnation of America’s Id.
(And, as long as we’re using a Freudian metaphor, with a running mate that is our super-ego on steroids. A man who wants women in their place, and anyone with a gender expression at all different from the binary, simply to disappear. Now that I think about it, sure a lot of sex on the minds of these people.)
And, oh, heaven help us. Whatever I think of him and that campaign he ran, while he in fact did not win a majority of America’s voters over, he did win the Electoral College and with that the election. Donald John Trump, real estate developer and reality television show star, who cut his political teeth leading the Birther charge claiming that Barack Obama was some kind of stealth other who was snuck into the country to do, well, something bad, that Donald Trump, that Donald Trump is now president elect of the United States of America.
So, what now? I find a couple of emotions raging within my heart. One, frankly, is to flee. I understand Canada’s immigration website crashed due to the number of visits to it last night. The temptation to Google best places to retire internationally rises strong in me. And, obviously, knowing what happened with Canada’s immigration website, I am not alone in that impulse.Of course this also represents all the privilege I bring along with being white and male and middle class. Most people don’t have any way to escape. In fact the thing that many just plain did not calculate properly was the fact so many people feel trapped. Senator Bernie Sanders had a sense of that problem, but he captured the hearts of our American far left, not the hard hats, not the regular working stiffs who were, who really are the left behind in the great economic shift that was most dramatically demonstrated in the real estate crisis of 2008 and with it the so-called Great Recession.
It is absolutely true that recession has ended. However, that’s defined by a set of economic factors that may or may not actually impact the majority of people. What that statement doesn’t show is how the new reality is vastly less equitable and more uncertain than it was before. People who were making a decent living, able to own homes and send their children to university while working in factories, that’s done, that’s over, and it isn’t coming back. Professionals today are generally highly renumerated, but their positions are extremely precarious. To summarize: the rich are getting richer, as I guess, has always been so. Then right below them there are those highly paid information manipulators whose positions could disappear tomorrow. And below that, looming ever larger here in this country an under class of people, who, if they have work, cannot make enough to support themselves, or their families. The bell curve of our economy is rapidly becoming a pyramid.
And quietly in the background the world’s population continues to climb to what not so long ago would have been unimaginable numbers. And with that we have begun to change the eco system of the globe in ways that do not look good. And the incoming administration’s response to this? We’ve just learned the head of the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency is a climate change denier. That word apocalypse begins to seem a mantra whispering ever more loudly into my dreams, something increasingly hard to ignore.
Now Donald Trump did capture the unease, the economic fear burning through many hearts and, frankly, not adequately captured by the Democrats, even if Senator Sanders tried. But, Mr Trump’s fix? Well. Blame the others. Blame the immigrants. Blame the gays. Blame women who don’t know their place. The fix he offered throughout his campaign has been to build a wall on our southern border that somehow Mexico is supposed to pay for.
So, back to running away. Yes, escape is tempting. But. In fact there is no escape, there is no pure spiritual unconnected, uncontaminated. There is no place else. There is a spiritual world. But, it is this one we live in, this one where the Americans just elected Donald Trump president.
And, you know, that is where we find our invitation. I’ve shared the bad news. Here is the good news. This is no caravan of despair. This moment is, in fact, an invitation to something. Our this-worldly spirituality is something Unitarian Universalists share in common with Buddhists, and some others, as well. The UU principles, particularly the first and seventh, our amazing insight into the value of every individual and our body knowing that we exist only within a web of intimate relations drives us to engage. I suggest this is terribly important: it contains the secret of our individual joy, and our collective salvation.
So, what to do? What to do?
For me I find a couple of things are critical. One is to not forget my practice. Me, I practice Zen, it is a discipline of embodied presence, based in the practice of taking time to sit down, to shut up, and to pay attention. I suggest now more than ever that we all recall the disciplines of recollection and presence, which we have found. And, if we don’t have a practice, and I suspect there are several among us for whom this is true, to 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.
Personally I commend each person here to consider a discipline like Zen or Insight meditation. If you’re relentlessly secular then check out mindfulness based stress reduction. It isn’t actually all that much about stress reduction, rather it is a secularized adaptation of the principles of Buddhist awareness practices. And worthy. I commend it to you. For others some kind of disciplined prayer life. 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. For me this starts with those who are terrorized by the election, the immigrant, the person of color, the GBLTQ person, women, everyone who sees themselves as the target of Mr Trump’s rhetoric of hate. But, also, to recall the hurt and fear that led so many people to support him. This is critical. To simply dismiss their emotions by cavalier broad struck condemnations, while it feels good, and I do like doing that, ultimately does no good. 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. 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 we have to act. There is no alternative, no other place to go. But, what will that action look like? More hate, more blame and condemnations?
Or, can we genuinely recall there is in the last analysis no goal, but only the path? There is no escape from this place. There is no sweet by and bye. This is it. Our freedom lies in how we meet the moment, knowing we are each of us related. And that really is each of us. 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.
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. It is our way. Looking inward, and reaching out a hand. Heart with heart, and hand in hand, we will build a community of hope and possibility.
Of that I am as sure as my beating heart.
Amen, my friends. And, amen.