Sermon: The Blessed Rage for Justice (audio & text)

 

READINGS

From “The American Dream,” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 “There is a word today that is the ringing cry of modern psychology: it is maladjusted. Certainly all of us want to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid the neurotic personality. But I say to you, there are certain things without our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon anyone of good will to be maladjusted.

“I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I ever did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. And I call on every person of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.”

“Making a Fist,” by Naomi Shihab Nye

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,

I felt the life sliding out of me,

A drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.

I was seven, I lay in the car

Watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past

the glass.

My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”

I begged my mother.

We had been traveling for days.

With strange confidence she answered,

“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,

the borders we must cross separately,

stamped with our unanswerable woes.

I who did not die, who am still living,

still lying in the back seat behind all my questions,

clenching and opening one small hand.

SERMON

One of the joys of my having spent some years with you as your minister is the way I’ve seen our worship deepen and grow. Over time we’ve come to know each other, you and I, so that what happens here on Sundays emerges in many ways out of how we evolve as a community. And these sermons I give are not so much meanderings that come out of my head as part of an ongoing conversation between us. I make this observation because this service today emerges directly out of that conversation.

About a month ago I observed that this year’s elections were distressing for many of us in all kinds of ways, but that what was especially troubling was that, as essayist Bill Moyers wrote, Americans seemed to be losing hope, and that “without hope we lose the talent and drive to cooperate in the shaping of our destiny.”

We are seeing a kind of uncompromising, righteous anger that is quick to judgment, when, in fact, I said, “the world is a lot more complicated that our righteous judgments allow for, and justice has other demands than to serve our petty needs.”

I argued that as people committed to affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all we need to be part of building a new way grounded in a commitment to make a common life together centered in compassion and respect. Several of you told me later that you appreciated the message, but were left with a gnawing question: at a time when so much that we care about is under assault, what do we do with the anger we feel? It’s an important question.

The truth is that many of us are uncomfortable with anger, and for a good reason. Our experience of others and even ourselves is that we’re often at our worst when we’re angry. That’s certainly been true of me. And yet anger can be a natural and even life-giving response to the circumstances of our lives. The issue is, as my questioners suggested, what we do with it.

Several years ago our staff here at UUCA took part in a training on the principles of nonviolent communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg. It was a wonderful exercise that helped us better listen to and connect with each other.

But several of us stumbled a bit on the exercise around anger. Anger is tricky because, as Rosenberg puts it, we often fail to distinguish the stimulus of the anger from its cause.

For example, I may say, “It made me mad that you came late to the meeting.” The stimulus for the anger may have been the person arriving late, Rosenberg would say, but it was not the cause. That’s the fallacy that trips us up. And it’s an easy mistake to make, living as we do in a culture that encourages us to use guilt to get our way. But the fact it is, what others do is never the cause of what we feel.

The image I hold in my mind is the toddler who flies off in a rage when she doesn’t get her way. As a parent, I know that I’m not the cause of her anger. The cause is her sadness over not getting what she wants.

In the case of our example, there were many ways I might have responded to the person being late to the meeting. But the way I processed the experience in my mind caused me to get mad. Here, though, I can see that my anger didn’t really accomplish anything because it distanced me from what I really needed in that instance, which was something like inspiration, fulfillment, or trust. Instead of expressing my anger, I could have taken a moment to reflect on why this person’s lateness triggered me, why I felt their promptness was important and shared that with them. And then we could have gotten on with the meeting.

What’s important to remember, though, is that in itself anger in itself is not a bad thing. I like the metaphor that Rosenberg offers: “Anger can be valuable,” he says, “if we use it as an alarm clock to wake us up – to realize we have a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely to be met.”

This is the kind of anger that stirs us to action. It reminds me of what Martin Luther King was speaking of in the reading we heard earlier. There are certain practices or conditions, he said, to which we ought to be “maladjusted,” that rightfully stir us to anger. He names racial segregation, religious bigotry, economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, the madness of militarism, the self-defeating effects of violence. I’ll bet there are a few that you could add to that list.

Yet, how shall we frame that anger in a way that doesn’t do damage or distract us from our larger goals and deeper needs? How might anger be a blessing to the world?

One source where it’s interesting to explore that question is in the testimony of the ancient prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. They are writings full of wrath for all the ways that different authors perceive that the people of Israel are failing to live up to what their faith calls of them.

I think of that famous passage in Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer my burnt offerings, I will not accept them . . . . Take away from my the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps, but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Many readers when they first see that passage wonder why such harsh words of condemnation for the Jewish people were preserved in their scriptures. But as the great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel remarked, the point of such angry testimony was not, in his words, “petulant vindictiveness,” but “a call to return and be saved.”

In this case, the point of Amos’ rant is not to express disappointment or even disgust but to remind the people of their duty to one another, of how attention to songs and ceremonies distracted them from the larger need for justice.

As Heschel puts it, “The call of anger is a call to cancel anger. It is not an expression of irrational, sudden, and instinctive excitement, but a free and deliberate reaction . . . to what is wrong and evil.”

This style of prophetic rhetoric has a powerful history in this country. It dates back to the early Puritans, who envisioned themselves as a new Israel building the Promised Land in the new world. And so their preaching often took on what they took to be the prophetic spirit, admonishing followers for their failure to live in the spirit of that vision.

In time, though, as the community grew to include people outside that nucleus of settlers that style came to seem narrow and shrill, and a split developed in the church. Our forebears were among those who led that split, people who believed that faith arose not from the admonishing of preachers but from how individual believers sorted out their own beliefs.

It was an empowering kind of religious awakening, but it also seems to have meant that from early in our evolution as a religious movement there was a deep suspicion of the role of emotion in the development of faith. We were a “reasonable religion” and emotional exuberance was seen as merely a means of manipulation.

For all the ways that may be true, the problem is that if we choose not to address how emotion influences our faith we are left tongue-tied with how to respond when it does, and, of course, it does, all the time. For our faith, that fundamental center of trust in our lives, connects deeply to that which we care about most deeply, and it can’t help make us feel sad and glad . . . and mad.

Returning to Marshall Rosenberg, if we are to live satisfying lives and connect compassionately with others, we must learn to tune into that which is core to us, how we truly feel. And anger, as we already saw, poses probably the greatest challenge of all – both because it’s hard to wrestle with and because it is potentially so damaging. And yet, like a refining fire, it can also bring crystal clarity to a situation, and, like an alarm clock, wake us to our duty.

So, how do we welcome anger into our religious lives? I wonder if an understanding of prophecy might offer us a way through. I’m not talking about the hectoring of TV evangelists or street-corner preachers.  Rather, I’m drawn to Abraham Heschel’s description of prophecy as “a call to return and be saved.”

Cathleen Kaveny of Harvard says in her book Prophecy Without Contempt that prophetic language can be a powerful tool “to combat entrenched social evil, to shake persons out of indifference,” but that if aspiring prophets “cannot connect their calls for reform to deep veins in the community’s own values, they’ll be perceived as cranks.”

She recalls, for example, how in the Civil Rights Movement activists “insisted that they prepare themselves and purify their motives before engaging in civil disobedience.” You might say they wanted to be sure that the needs they were serving were those of justice, not of their own egos.

Effective prophecy, then, must arise from a context in which the underlying values are shared. Part of the power of the civil rights movement was that it appealed ultimately to an ethic of equality that most people, even their opponents, agreed on.

But prophecy need not be the work only of a single individual. The Rev. Meg Riley, senior minister of our Church of the Larger Fellowship, argues that we Unitarian Universalists should explore the notion of what it might mean to create prophetic communities in our congregations, communities that see their work as the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described it as a matter “of making history, rather than being pushed around by it.”

Meg argues that there are three main qualities to such congregations: they are clear about the values they stand for; they embrace an ethic of radical caring; and they focus on hope.

If our call is to return, we must be clear on what we seek to return to, the principles of moral integrity, openness and compassion that guide us.

We also need to cultivate practices of full inclusion so that our congregations become places where we can relax when we enter the door, knowing, as Meg puts it, “that all of our edges are accepted” and we don’t have to “choose which of our identities we can safely allow in the room.”

And we need we need to orient our work toward a concrete and visionary sense of the future, so that we understand our hope not as wishful thinking but as a disciplined, existential choice that helps us bear together what we cannot bear alone.

In such a community we might learn how to turn our anger into action, rather than recrimination or blame, and to dispatch with facile, righteous judgment that only puffs up our sense of self-importance.

In such a community, we might learn to attend to each other so well that we listen each other into speech that awakens our hearts, that touches our deepest longing and our deepest joy.

What do we do with anger? We make it a tool for our own and our community’s awakening.  The fist that Naomi Shihab Nye’s seven-year-old self tries out – opening and closing her hand in the back seat of that interminable car ride that she describes in the poem you heard earlier – is a gesture, not of aggression, but of self-determination.

It embraces that impulse within us to endure, to stand for what matters, and not just by ourselves alone. It also calls us to ally ourselves with others who will stand with us, who will join as gentle, angry people, singing for their lives. And so, let us sing together.