Monday, January 11, 2016

Resistance to the Dominant Culture

This is the sermon I preached at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, January 10, 2016.  As always, you can listen to the podcast if you prefer.

If Unitarian Universalism were to have a pantheon of saints, right up there among them would be Ralph Waldo Emerson.  That’s what I usually call him, actually – St. Ralph.  While Unitarian Universalism has roots that go way, way back to the earliest days of the Jesus movement – even before it had taken the name “Christianity” – for the casual observer it might appear that our movement had its origins in the early nineteenth century with the Transcendentalist movement.

Transcendentalism, as some of you no doubt know, was a philosophical, literary, and religious movement that stood in contrast to more traditional schools of thought at the time.  People like Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Walt Whitman, and, of course, St. Ralph himself trumpeted the triumph of the individual.  “Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.”  That’s from Wikipedia; this is from the pen of St. Ralph himself:

“There is a time in [everyone’s] education when [they] [arrive] at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that [they] must take [themselves] for better, for worse, as [their] portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to [them] but through [their] toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to [them] to till. The power which resides in [them] is new in nature, and none but [she or he] knows what that is which they can do, nor does [she or he] know until [they] tried.” 

That’s from his essay Self-Reliance.  (And yes, I updated the gender-specific language.)  The Transcendentalists bemoaned the state of things as they looked around and saw them – people had lost faith in themselves, in their own innate wisdom and power.  In earlier sermons I’ve quoted a marvelous passage from the writings of Emerson’s friend Thoreau about how the proper people of his day would much prefer talking about the prophets of old than to have a prophet at their own table.  But the call of the Transcendentalists was to ignore all outside influence, no matter how well entrenched, and to rely only on oneself.  “Self-reliance” was more than the name of one of St. Ralph’s essays; it was the rallying cry of these revolutionaries.

Emerson admonished the 1838 graduating class of Harvard Divinity School to, “first of all, go alone; … refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination.”  Elsewhere he wrote, “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”  And, of course, Thoreau gave us the idea of listening to the beat of a “different drummer.”

So we have here one kind of resistance.  (You knew I’d get around to that eventually since that’s our month’s theme – what it means to be a people of resistance.)  Our Transcendentalist ancestors called on the people of their day to resist the pull of the crowd, resist going along with tradition and expectation for their own sake, and, instead, to listen to their own inner wisdom and the pull of their own hearts, minds, and consciences.  It’s a call that still resonates with us today.  When Newsweek magazine dubbed us “the quintessential baby boomer church” this was, no doubt, a part of what they were referring to.  Like the Baby Boomer Generation in general, we have made an idol of the individual and a fetish of our freedom.

It’s part of the DNA of who we are.  Many of us are here for precisely this reason – because here we can each be free to be ourselves with no external coercion.  To many, this is the great thing about our movement – that we’re all dancing to the beats of our own inner drummers.  (Actually, some of us aren’t even all that particularly into percussion … and that’s okay too!)

And yet …

I haven’t used that two-word transition in a while, but here it is.  All that I’ve said so far is true, and yet …

The Opening Reading came from an article in UU Word magazine written by the Rev. Cheryl Walker.  It’s called “Power of community; the peril of individualism.”  In it she describes her movement from her childhood involvement with the Nation of Islam to her discovery of Unitarian Universalism in her adulthood.  She describes the joy of this discovery in words that many of us will feel very familiar with:

I fell in love with being an individual in a faith community. I was like a kid in a candy store. Me, me, me. My faith, my journey, my religion. It’s all about me. This religion was created with me in mind, just waiting for the day that I would show up and make it complete. Of course I didn’t say this, but I sure felt it. I could breathe again, I could sing, even if I didn’t know any of the tunes—and I did read ahead to make sure I wasn’t going to sing anything I didn’t agree with.

We, too, might not say it out loud, but let’s be honest … I’ll admit that that’s pretty much what I was feeling the first time I discovered a UU congregation:  “My faith, my journey, my religion. … This religion was created with me in mind …”  Some of you probably felt this way, too.  Some no doubt still do.

Yet the passage Adam read, and even just the title of the piece – “Power of community [and] the peril of individualism” – notes that there is a downside to this Worship of the One.  And it seems to me that this downside is being investigated more explicitly in recent years than I’ve heard before, especially when addressing questions like, “Why aren’t we growing more as a movement?” and “How come people visit our congregation and don’t stay?” and “Why can’t we attract more … ?”  (And you can fill in your own favorite group that you’ve observed not being well represented here.)
Let’s listen again to the Rev. Walker:

While I loved this faith, and still do, I wondered about its people. It took a long time for me to decide to sign the membership book. I love the promise of this faith, but when I, as a person of color, look at us I wonder, How can we say we affirm our Principles and yet fail to accomplish the most simple yet difficult task: creating a community where everyone can come and be who they are? We love our individuality so much we cannot make room for someone else’s. [Let me repeat that:  We love our individuality so much we cannot make room for someone else’s.]  We are unwilling to give up even a piece of our individuality to create a community where all truly feel welcome.  [My italics.]

Even more challengingly, she writes the words we heard earlier:

True community doesn’t happen unless everyone is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group. If this doesn’t happen, then we are merely a group of individuals sharing common space but not becoming a community. It doesn’t mean that we go to the extremes of everyone wearing the same clothing, praying the same way, if at all, or believing the same things. However, it does mean that we move individualism from the center of our focus and replace it with a new concept of shared community, in which everyone gives up a little so that we can gain a lot.

“True community doesn’t happen unless everyone – [And that means me and that means you, you know.  “Everyone” means specifically me and you and isn’t some nebulous abstraction.] – is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group.”  I think that I can say in all honesty that I’ve never met a Unitarian Universalist – or, to be fair in case I’ve forgotten someone, more than a small handful of Unitarian Universalists – truly willing to make that exchange, even though we all talk a lot about the importance of community.  Be honest –  how many of us would say that we’re really, truly “willing to give up some of [our] identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group”? 

I believe it was my colleague Tom Schade who suggested some time back that the real legacy of our Transcendentalist forebears is not their celebration of the individual, it’s their resistance to the culture of their day (which most certainly did not honor the importance of the individual as an individual).  What we need to see in their example, Tom said (and if it wasn’t Tom I apologize to whomever I’m not giving credit to), is the stance of critical resistance to the demands of the dominant culture, resistance to the crowd’s call to conformity.

And if that’s their true lesson, then today we should absolutely be trumpeting the importance of community.  And not the kind of community that’s really just a bunch of individuals coming into the same place from time to time and calling itself “a community,” but the kind of deep, rich, interconnected community in which part of our identity as individuals is our identity as part of the community. 

Now … I think that one of the reasons this is so hard for us is that many of us, maybe even most of us, don’t really feel comfortable bringing our whole selves, being our whole selves, when we come through these doors.  A lot of us are holding part of ourselves back because, even here, we don’t really believe that we would be fully accepted for the totality of who we are:  “I’m a Trinitarian Christian,” maybe or, “I’m a fiscal conservative.”  “I’m not a registered Democrat.”  “I don’t have a Master’s Degree.”  “I use Food Stamps.”  “I’m an atheist.”  “I have guns.”  “I don’t believe that abortion should be so accessible.” “I’ve been diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder.”  “I can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods so I get my groceries at Wall-Mart.”  “I don’t particularly like Batman.”

A lot of us here – and I’d dare say nearly all of us here – have something about ourselves that we hide … even here.  And this isn’t true just here, of course, so despite our movement’s well-publicized and celebrated elevation of the individual the truth is that we do not fully trust these … I was going to say “communities” but I think I’ll go with Cheryl’s phrase again, “group of individuals sharing common space.” 

Always there is a balance, always there needs to be a balance, between the individual and the group.  The Transcendentalists who came before us, as a people of resistance, stood up for the part of that individual/communal equation that was being undervalued.  They saw around themselves a culture of conformity and reminded the people of their time that as important as it is to belong to a group it is essential to be oneself.   They said that the claim of community was a siren song, and they advocated for, and modeled among themselves, a strong and clear resistance to its call.

Today, the culture around us has shifted and it’s all individual all the time.  We’ve lost sight of what true community really is, and what it can do and be.  The balance has shifted.  So now it’s our role as a people of resistance to encourage, and to model, a strong and clear resistance to the idolatry of the individual.  It is our task, now, to remind people that as important as it is to be ourselves, it is essential that we create community.  And the paradox is that it’s essential because, ironically, it is only in real community that we are free to be ourselves.  Only in the kind of real community we’re talking about this morning can I find the kind of trust of one another that gives me the courage to risk being myself, my whole self; and when I can trust enough to take that risk, you feel the trust to courageously do the same.

Cheryl Walker describes this as, “the most simple yet difficult task,” this creating of real community.  It’s what we say over and over that we want to do, and yet as long as we place individualism in the center of our focus it simply will not happen because, as we’ve heard several times now, “true community doesn’t happen unless everyone is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group.”

Over the coming months our pledge drive team will be encouraging us in various ways to consider just what this community means to us.  I would ask, is this community one to which you can bring your whole self?  Is this the kind of community for which you would give up a piece of yourself?  Does it hold for you an identity that you’re willing to take on as yours?  Are you inspired here to value your own individuality a little less so that there is room for someone else’s?  (Especially if that someone is a kind of individual you don’t particularly … cotton to?)

If so … great.  Spread the Good News!  Tell your friends and neighbors, and be as generous as you can be with your time, your talent, and your treasure to ensure that this community can flourish.  And if not, consider what value it would have for you if it were and then, I pray, commit to doing all that it is within your power to do to create it.  As a people of resistance we Unitarian Universalists are called on to resist the ways our culture is unhealthy and to provide a living model of what can be.  We can start right here.

Pax tecum,


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