Sermon: There is Hope in Resistance (audio and text)

READING         “The Legacy of Caring” by Thandeka

Despair is my private pain
    Born from what I have failed to say
        failed to do
        failed to overcome.
Be still my inner self
    let me rise to you
    let me reach down into your pain
    and soothe you.
I turn to you
    to renew my life
I turn to the world
    the streets of the city
         the worn tapestries of
             brokerage firms
             crack dealers
             private estates
             personal things in the bag lady’s cart
        rage and pain in the faces that turn from me
         afraid of their own inner worlds.
This common world I love anew
    as the lifeblood of generations
           who refused to surrender their humanity
           in an inhumane world
           courses through my veins.
From within this world
    my despair is transformed to hope
    and I begin anew
    the legacy of caring.


Resistance. What’s that about? I think we all have an idea. I push, you push back, right? You get in my way. You refuse to comply.

It’s a power dynamic, but subtler than outright opposition, at least at first, isn’t it? Often that’s because the party doing the resisting is at some disadvantage to the one they oppose. The other may be bigger, stronger, better funded, and deeply ensconced in a system constructed to keep them right where they are, calling the shots at the top of the heap.

And once perched there, it is their way, a la the Borg of Star Trek, to flaunt their power and warn us that “resistance is futile.” And yet, as movements of liberation have learned across the ages, in truth it hardly ever is. Resistance accomplished with persistence, fueled by integrity and compassion, done with creativity and grit can undo the Borgs and the bullies, however fearsome they may seem to be.

To enter a conversation today about how that might be I’m inviting us to enter a great old story celebrated right now by our Jewish neighbors. It has its own cautions and challenges but also important lessons for the path of resistance.

It takes us back some 2,200 years to a tumultuous time for the Jewish people when they had to endure a succession of foreign despots with different designs on Palestine. And as you can imagine, as each arrived he found the Jews inconveniently opposed to his program. Each designed his own strategy to get around this. Some oppressed them, others sought to co-opt Jewish leaders and had some success, though many still opposed them.

The most radical program came from a Syrian named Antiochus Epiphanes, who in 168 BC  sent soldiers to take over Jerusalem.  Many Jews chafed at  the increasing restrictions on Jewish practices that Antiochus ordered,  culminating with widespread killings and the installation of Greek idols in the temple.

In response, a clan of Jewish priests known as the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees, then withdrew from Jerusalem and planned a revolt. In time, the revolt devolved into a civil war that took in not only the Maccabees and the soldiers, but also  Jews who had adopted Greek practices. After a series of battles, the Maccabees prevailed.

On returning to Jerusalem, they discovered the Temple to be in shambles. The first book of Maccabees, an apocryphal scripture that was never included in the Jewish Bible, describes in detail how the Temple was restored. It was then that leaders declared that an eight-day festival of “Hanukkah,” which translates from Hebrew simply as “dedication,” should be held to purify and consecrate the temple.

The bit about oil found in a vessel that was enough to keep the flame on the menorah burning for a day lasting the full eight days of the festival is a nice bit of theater attributed to creative rabbis some seven centuries after the event. Still, it nicely turns the focus of the story away from a bloody civil war and back toward a more profound message that resistance can pay off, and even more that oppressed peoples have a right to self-determination, or, as our choir just reminded us, a right to freedom to be who they are.

It’s a message that’s especially fitting at this time when so many people in different settings are struggling for freedom and self-determination but also seeing some fruits of resistance.

I think, for example, of the recent senatorial election in Alabama. Much has been said about the political ramifications of this shift, which are huge. But as I watched election returns last week my thoughts turned to the celebrations that I attended two years ago of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights march on Selma.

I remember at the time being deeply moved, standing on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, site of the bloody 1965 attack on civil rights workers, packed in with a racially diverse crowd laughing and singing freedom songs. But there was a wistfulness there, too. To be honest, there’s not much to modern-day Selma.

 Yes, its leadership is African-American, but economically it’s a shell of what it once was, as are many communities with African-American majorities in Alabama. Yes, freedom came with the Voting Rights Act, but only freedom of a sort. Political and economic leadership still lies mostly in the hands of whites, and blacks continue to suffer.

 But as the election returns rolled in last Tuesday, it became clear that black voters in numbers unprecedented in Alabama history were turning the election away from one man, a candidate of the white power structure who pined for a pre-Civil War U.S., and toward another a man,  a candidate of the insurgents, who had successfully prosecuted men who in 1963 bombed a Birmingham church, killing four black girls, one of the defining outrages of the Civil Rights era.

And it seemed a bit of cosmic justice that it was Dallas County, home of Selma, that pushed that ex-prosecutor over the top in that Senate race. Not exactly the victory of the Maccabees, perhaps, since among other things we can’t know how all this will play out in the long run. But for a moment it offers us a window into the power of resistance, of how even against long odds people can make a change.

And from here I want to point to one more movement of resistance that is roiling our nation. It may not have reached its Maccabees moment yet, but with the momentum, it’s gathered so far there is reason to hope. I speak of the campaign against sexual harassment and abuse.

I like the way that Time magazine frames those who have brought the issue before us in its latest “Person of the Year” issue: The Silence Breakers.

Like every campaign for freedom, it is about standing up to people in power. Yet, this one is complicated even further since it’s centered on sex, our most intimate selves, something private and close. Perpetrators learned to use that wish for privacy as a weapon to warn their victims with Bork-like assurance that “resistance is futile.”

It took brave women willing to break the silence,  to offer their own stories and risk ridicule, to report the stories of others and risk professional ruin,  in order for the story to be told.

The fall-out has been both encouraging and dispiriting. Encouraging in that breaking the logjam of silence has encouraged many women to tell their own stories, opening paths to healing and renewal. New Internet memes – “I believe them” and “Me, too” – have helped amplify the campaign and give confidence to those taking the risk of telling their stories.       

The campaign has also dislodged some notorious abusers from positions of power or authority. It’s encouraged men to take stock of their behavior and opened conversations around practices in offices and other organizational settings.

It’s been dispiriting, though, to see some abusers simply take shelter in denial. And while high profile cases make the news, many more stay in the shadows,  where unchanged power dynamics put women who voice allegations of abuse at a risk they can’t afford. The work of silence breaking remains, and for those of us, women and men, committed to changing the dynamic, we are challenged to find ways to raise the notion of resistance to another level.     

In an essay in Time, the novelist Gillian Flynn writes that as much as she admires  the courageous women who raised their voices, in her words, “I don’t feel triumphant,  I feel humiliated and angry.”

Along with the stories bravery and perseverance,  she writes, this campaign has also surfaced  a toxic Internet culture of shaming and degradation  and all the boys club abuses that are baked into corporate culture

 “Threats to women abound,” Flynn writes. “We are underrepresented everywhere, underpaid by everyone and underestimated all over.”

All of this comes home to her, she says, when she looks at her children her 3-year-old daughter, who she describes as “fearless, vibrant,” and perhaps even more her “sweet” 7-year-old son.

How to assure that they are neither, in her words, “crushed by this world” nor drawn in one way or another into the cycle of abuse swimming around them? It begins, she says, with how we choose to raise them.

“My son,” she writes, “recently asked me,  ‘Why aren’t there any shirts that say BOY POWER?’”

“I could have talked about male entitlement,” she says, “and the male gaze, the wage gap and Weinstein. But I thought: If the myriad GIRL POWER shirts are meant to encourage female strength and confidence, a BOY POWER shirt might make  male empathy and respect dynamic. There were no BOY POWER shirts,  so I had to DIY (do-it-yourself) an iron-on. Now, there’s at least one.”

Resistance has many dimensions. It is in part naming and working to remove signs of oppression wherever we can. It is also work to reframe the ways that we are with each other, owning the stumbles we make, but holding in view like a polestar the truth at the center of our beings: our and each other’s incalculable inherent worth and our and each other’s right to be who we are.

It is the holy flame we each carry that even when dimmed by circumstance endures.

Like Thandeka, we may mourn and despair all that we have failed to say, to do, to overcome, but still within there is a source of renewal and strength,  that invites us into new hope, entering the legacy of caring.