BLOOD-STAINED EDEN: A Meditation on Despair and Hope and Our Human Condition

BLOOD-STAINED EDEN: A Meditation on Despair and Hope and Our Human Condition October 17, 2021




A Meditation on Despair and Hope and Our Human Condition

James Ishmael Ford

A Sermon

17 October 2021
First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles

We’re running up to a terrible anniversary.

Next week will mark one hundred and fifty years since the horrific massacre of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles in 1871. At the time LA counted fewer than seven thousand people, total. And the Chinese immigrant population was equally tiny, only about one hundred and seventy. And. Nineteen immigrants died in the riot. In absolute terms a horror. But also, that’s close to fifteen percent of the Chinese population. An unspeakable horror visited upon people who had braved considerable hardship to be there, hoping for opportunities, and often just to support distant family.

The immediate cause was that a white policeman had been killed in what appeared to be a fight among two tongs. But rumors quickly spread among the white population that there was some sort of rampage against them. In response possibly as many as five hundred people descended on the Chinese neighborhood. And, truthfully, those nineteen deaths were simply the pinnacle of the terror visited on the community that day.

In the aftermath ten people were tried, and eight convicted. All would eventually be released when the convictions were overturned on various “technicalities.” Truth was vigilante hangings were common. And punishment for vigilantism was relatively rare. In the years just before the massacre there had been at least thirty-five hangings of Mexicans in the majority white town. Although it needs to be noted, Latinx people were also involved in the attack on the Chinese population. Three of the eight convicted were identified as “Mexicans.”

Lots of complexities in these matters. As we know from our own times.

Me, I think a lot about complexities. The great mess of this and that, is, I guess, just where I live. Tevye and his many hands must be my special patron saint. Among these complexities is how today Los Angeles is the second most diverse city in the United States, trailing only New York City. I found a list saying that Los Angeles is the ninth most diverse city in the world.

When Jan and I returned home to California after a quarter of a century wandering with work, one of the things we exulted in, was coming to LA as the embodiment of the future. I look around it and feels the future is here. Some of it is wonderful. It’s so exciting, and rich. Some bringing sadness piled upon sadnesses. Poverty, violence, deferred and sometimes lost dreams. Which of course, brings us back to complexity.

Here’s what I feel we are invited into reflecting about today, near the anniversary of that terrible event. We are in fact facing several possible futures. Which one will prevail is one of the great and terrible questions facing us.

One of the most intriguing things about the American experiment, the project that is the United States was how it was based in a couple of ideas current in the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century. One was a democratizing trend. Few real democrats in the early mix, of course. At the poles, I suggest Paine and Franklin. Thomas Paine, who no one liked. And, Benjamin Franklin, who everyone, pretty much, did like. Two geniuses of the possible, one an idealist, the other an ultimate pragmatist. The rest were of various sorts, mostly people looking to make money, including many slaveholders among them. And politically, they mainly liked the idea of oligarchy, although pretty much all had democratizing inclinations. And that’s been our governmental style since: oligarchy and democracy in an uneasy tension. Rhetorically most democratic, functionally more oligarchic. With, at the heart, I think, with Paine and Franklin, a melding of idealism and pragmatism.

The other thing that was exciting, at least in theory, was the ideal of moving away from blood and soil as an organizing principle. The dream among many was a population gathered from all over the world. This dream would be captured in that poem etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

It is a dream of a new Eden. A fresh start. But, as the title of one article I saw about that horrific massacre a hundred and fifty years ago noted, ours is at best a blood-stained Eden. From the beginning. There were people here when the ancestors of our Republic arrived, who were swept away with plague and guns. The survivors hemmed into reserves. And pretty much at the same time as we threw off European nationalisms, we ended up with Whiteness. Whiteness as our replacement for blood and soil, the serpent within our new Eden. And for those who didn’t fit. Restricting laws. Riots. Lynchings. Murder and terror of those perceived others. Tribalism, it seems, is some kind of inevitable.

However, Whiteness contains a seed of its own destruction. I think of those “Mexican” rioters among the rest a hundred and fifty years ago. Some were in the perennial struggle among those at the bottom of the economic ladder, fighting for a crust. Others no doubt saw themselves as part of that White Stew. People filling out the 2020 census might have been surprised how white encompassed people not only from Europe, but the Middle East, and North Africa. Long and twisted stories behind those categories, starting, perhaps with Irish and Italians, but, well, it’s messy.

The way various groups became white is itself a study in mutability, and while rotten at the core, has at its edges some of the dream within the American dream. The dream captured not in the Constitution, a perfect example of compromise, but in the Declaration of Independence (although with its own singular compromise), the Gettysburg Address, and the Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Within those documents the dream of a many and a one, a mysterious and almost mystical sense of a bound community of communities and precious individuals.

Most often, I notice, revealed in its various betrayals. But, and here’s the other most important thing for today: a better way is struggling to be born into this world.

Now, sometimes I look at us as human beings, and I think, we’re doomed. Possibly from the beginning. We have those two enormous problems. First, I look at our forward-looking eyes, I look at our canines, and I think predator. Add in our brains and what we get is the world’s apex predator. King of the hill. With room for only one up there at the top. Second, we run in packs. With culture this become tribalisms. Take I’m-in-it-for-me and tribalism as deep realities of our human lives; and it is hard to see how we extricate ourselves from a cycle up the hill and then relentlessly downwards from conquering the world to destroying it.

I find myself wondering how we get out of this mess. And I wonder if it is possible. And. Well, I wouldn’t be here, if I didn’t think there was some good news.

Recently a friend pointed me to a very interesting study. Robert Sapolsky is a neurologist and professor at Stanford. In the early 1980s he was studying two troops of baboons, a primate that rivals us for its violence. One troop had settled near a human garbage dump, and the other lived nearby, but went to the dump daily to forage. The leadership of both troops, the most violent, skirmished regularly.

These were also the ones who got the lion’s share, as it were, of food. So, when tainted food in the dump led to an outbreak of tuberculosis, the ones who were wiped out, were the leadership of the two troops. The most violent of the two bands.

According to Sapolsky, focusing his work on the forest troop, “The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among (their) males, but it was far looser than before. Compared with other, more typical savanna baboon groups, high-ranking males rarely harassed subordinates and occasionally even relinquished contested resources to them. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other—a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.”

Sapolsky notes one other thing. The normal procedure within baboon cultures is for adolescent males to leave the troop and then attach to a new one finding their place through combativeness. Instead, coming to this new egalitarian group, (and) instead of meeting with violence they are groomed and soon invited into sexual contact. A new kind of baboon troop emerged. More egalitarian, more caring, and less violent.

It’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from specific examples. And we’re talking baboons, relatives of ours, but not especially close. We have to look at chimps and bonobos for that closeness. And it turns out chimps are not particularly nice creatures, either.

But it reveals something. Our salvation, individually and collectively, can only be found in loosening our death grip on our identities. And our cousins show us that, hard as it is, it is possible. We’re vastly more adaptable than any other apes. And actually while it was betrayed by Whiteness, we have seen it possible to reframe the ancient evil of blood and soil. It’s just that traps will continually appear. So. That price of freedom and its vigilance. The vigilance is watching our hearts. Which, blessing upon blessing, reveals possibilities.

There is something. It’s a burning coal at the core of our humanity. If we notice it, and fan it, foster it, care for it, and attend to it, well. Then there genuinely is hope for us and this world. The intuition of wonder and beauty and most of all of connection rises in individual hearts spontaneously. And more good news. There is a world of spiritual disciplines that help us to dig in deeper and to find the many truths which follow noticing that interconnectedness. I commend them to you. Not just for your own sake, but for the sake of this world.

But. And this is so important. The secret to them all is just turning our hearts and allowing the world to present itself to us. Stop projecting, as best you can, and instead let the world, what in East Asian cultures is sometimes called the Ten Thousand Things, let it be, and let it present itself to you. To me. Witness. Be present.

This is important. Because the ancient dream is found in how we see ourselves. And what we are, is multiple things. We are each at differing places between birth and death. But connected. We each bring gifts and difficulties, each of us in our uniqueness. And all connected. We nest in various social conditions, sexual expressions, the list is long and it includes cultural expressions, but are all connected. In one way of looking at it, we are individuals. From another angle we are intimately connected. So intimately we can call it one.

We just need to open our hearts and minds. So much depends upon this simple turn, this noticing. Good grief. If baboons can do it, so can we. Find the truth within our mutability, our ability to change how we are in this world. Notice the lies we tell ourselves. Thinking we are unconnected and not responsible. Lies. Our tribalisms. Lies. Blood and soil. Lies. Whiteness, as a pretty dramatic example of lies we tell ourselves.

Know the truth, and we will find our freedom. And the truth, is that mysterious thing of us as individuals, and us as family. The power of this mystery has many names. I think love is the best of them.

Love. Ultimately this is a spiritual question. The othering of people, really our othering of the world itself, is a soul mistake. It is a spiritual error. More, seeing ourselves as only individuals or only as part of a particular group, is a terrible spiritual sickness.

But there is that cure. Noticing. Finding the intimacy. Embracing the intimate way. The way of love.

We can wash the blood away, and find the true Eden, we can bind up the ancient wounds, we can sing the ancient song. We can bring healing to this world. In conclusion, let me share what it looks like here in Stephen Mitchell’s wonderful version.

Blessed are the man and the woman
Who have grown beyond their greed
And have put an end to their hatred
And no longer nourish illusions.
But they delight in the way things are
And keep their hearts open, day and night.
They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,
Which bear fruit when they are ready.
Their leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.

This is the Eden our ancestors dreamed. This is the Eden that this very place can be.

It’s in our hearts.

It’s in our hands.


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