An Age of Enlightenment

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Paris in Morning

Sleep now.
The city of lights has gone out.
The shining beacon
The guide through the night
Of our fantasies, gone.
The Tour looms
A sleeping dark giant
The only sound, the wind in its frame.
The Arc is heavy
And silent and grave
A tomb for the gaiety
Lost in one day.
The metro is still,
The Opéra is dim,
And Our Lady sleeps
And weeps in the stillness
As she wades through the Seine.

And so you too are gone,
My light, my love
My shining beacon
Who guided me through this night called life.
My city of lights has gone out
Forever.
Yet, once again it is dawn
And the morning has begun.

(For the people who lost loved ones in the recent Paris attack.)

Seeing the images from Paris makes me weep.  I’m brought back to that day when I was standing on a London street watching the twin towers collapse.  Or the summer in DC when I heard of the London bombings…or Madrid…or the Boston Marathon.  I find myself, as a spiritual leader and writer asking so many questions.  What are we fighting? Do we even know?  Why?

I am also a student of the Enlightenment.  As such, I have learned that during the 16th – 18th centuries, “identity” became fixed in the Western world as something that could not only be personally defended, but as something that could be collectively defended and celebrated as a “nation.” In an age where we saw the birth of “race,” “nationalism” and “political parties” these social constructs took on the functions that had previously been ascribed only to religion and family. This development of national “identities” created the foundation for the current state of war in which we exist.

The horror and grief over the Paris attacks is extremely accessible to us in the US.  Not only as a result of the 9/11 attacks, but as a Western nation who’s identity is in large part directly a result of the French identity, we feel this pain immediately. But ISIS is not playing the same game of “identities.” Theirs is not, as some would have us believe, a simple question of wanting to supplant the French or even Western identity. Theirs is a question of a total world view and I believe is rooted in the broader question of how they see existence. Most unfortunately, this idea about existence and the nature of human life on earth for them is rooted in their gross mis-interpretation of Islam.  We must be clear, the people behind this violence are not evil because of Islam. Rather, they are using Islam for evil purposes. To grasp this concept, you might consider turning the situation around and thinking of an organization or ideology like the Westboro Baptist Church or even the KKK.  Both are legal organizations in the United States, and both organizations would happily exterminate those who do not believe as they do (in the supremacy of white heteronormative Christianity.) A homegrown terrorist like Dylann Roof should be a reminder to us that there is little difference between ISIS and the Aryan Nation.

But, religion, specifically Islam, is not the problem here. The problem is fundamentalism that we have in part learned from religion.  Yet,  fundamentalism does not need a religion to hang itself from…although it has clearly been done in the past and will surley be done in the future. In our increasingly secular world, religion has frequently been supplanted by everything from capitalism to liberalism to atheism and even vegetarianism. The term “fundamentalism” must be viewed through a broader modern lens and as a result our current state of crisis must be as well. We are choosing the language and the tactics of “war” to counter a “nation” that is not fighting a “war” with us as much as it is reinforcing its view of existence. This is in no way an apology for ISIS/ISIL.  On the contrary, it is a call to action for us to be truly smart in how we prevent any further senseless loss of life.

The call to action will begin with the right conversation and the right questions.  Why are Western targets being attacked; why is this extremism attractive to young people, abroad and at home; why do the leaders feel like this kind of violence is productive to their ends; who are the targets…really? Part of the right conversation forces us to examine where we stand in terms of our own Western “fundamentalism” and what role we play in this conflict. No one is entirely free from accountability. We don’t want to see innocent people blown up and gunned down, but we tolerate regular mass shootings because gun companies want to make money.  We want to shelter refugees from “radical Islam” but we squabble over how to provide refugees from our own border the same protection.  We talk about police brutality and race and give little or no protection transgender people who are targeted simply for being alive.  We are horrified by the violence of people blowing up ancient shrines, yet we carved of Mt Rushmore into a sacred Native site and continue to desecrate native land for oil. We criticize somem cultures for oppressing women in the style of dress but we live in a nation that lets men legislate women’s bodies.  We cry “All Lives Matter” in a nation where blacks are 12 times as likely to be murdered than whites.

ISIS is completely and utterly wrong in what they have done. There is no excuse for the attacks in Paris or the other sickening global violence inspired and perpetuated by both ISIS/ISIL and Boko Haram. They are not Islam.

But in our response as “Western nations” we must remember that the only true victims are the dead and those they loved.

Million White Man March

Obama_WhiteHouseConfederateFlagAs I watch the current state of the US Government, it is difficult to regard it without also taking in the national climate surrounding what is going on.  Mass shootings, chronic homelessness, rabid religiosity and total religious apathy, education in decline, greater wealth gap, gender and gender identity wars, the complete meltdown of information systems and above all the total and absolute disintegration of cultural trust.  Houston we have a problem.

To me, this whole thing reminds me, sadly, of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.  I’ve referenced this movie before.  In it, the director portrays a world that is thrown into chaos when black people are liberated, particularly when a black man is in leadership (at least that’s how this black man sees the movie.)  That was 1915.  What is happening right now in 2013 is exactly the same thing; we have a black man in leadership and the cornerstone of everything American is falling to pieces.  Simple, right?

No, not so simple. This is what I believe, our dear conservative tea party Bible beating white male friends would like to have us believe: that because a black man is in the white house, mayhem ensues.  He (Obama) doesn’t have the capacity to lead; he is polarizing; he is inept; he has no authority.  This story line is exactly what D.W. Griffith was preaching.  But my dears, that was a movie, made by one white man 98 years ago. This is real life.  Or is it?  Could it be that our Tea Party friends aren’t quite as simple and bumpkinish as some of us high flying, over educated Liberals want to believe?  Remember, the Tea Party created Sarah Palin.  She is a complete and ignorant nobody, yet she is in our NATIONAL media and consciousness.  She is the ultimate creation of the “gotcha media” that she so scorns.  Like the bride of Frankenstein, SHE LIVES…and it would seem that she is carrying the torch for a completely fabricated movement to make President Obama the scapegoat and to reaffirm the bedrock of what American culture was originally built upon: oppressive white male colonial power.

Now why would someone do this?  Why would anyone wish to play out the storyline of a movie like Birth of a Nation?  Well, if you are attached to the security you felt when your world wasn’t challenged by someone else’s culture, or gender expression or wealth priorities or look or smell, you might just want things to go back to 1861.  But in this modern era, we live in an increasingly unstable and erratic world.  Most specifically, from November, 22 1963, as a nation, the United States was suddenly living in a world where “if it could happen…it would.”  The President of the United States was shot and killed and unlike the Lincoln murder that took not only days but sometimes weeks for people to become aware of, the entire nation experienced the loss of John F. Kennedy in real time.  The unthinkable of losing someone who’s image we had seen repeatedly and who’s voice we had known, happened and was transferred globally within minutes.

And that was just the beginning.  Footage of race riot brutality, Viet Nam, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy.  We spent the 1960’s being emotionally raped by a serial sickness of “if it can happen…it will.”  We emerged assuming that if a public figure was out in the open, they would be shot; if world finance was on the rise, sooner or later it would come crashing down; if there was a conflict between nations somewhere in the world, it would escalate into a convoluted political quagmire with unthinkable loss of human life.  And then, just as we were starting to show a few signs of emotional healing…September 11, 2001.  The attack on the World Trade Center in New York, more than the 50, 100, 200 years of tragedy leading up to it, sent us nationally over the edge.  Regardless of the political motivations of the attackers, or their connections to international networks or global terrorism, 9/11 meant that we were locked in the cycle of abuse once again.  If it could happen it would.

Suddenly we have Homeland Security, border control, language like “Islamist Extremism,” “freedom fries,” and cries of U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A! We entered an age of chronic national post traumatic stress disorder.  Our first thought is fear.  Our world is shaped by laws that, despite the language of law (innocent until proven guilty) assumes the worst.  We put people in prison for assumption; we have insurance we don’t need nor could ever use; metaphorically, we are shuttered away in our minds and our attitudes so that even if it is good for us to be in the sun, we don’t want any part of it because we might develop cancer.  Our reaction to learning of the abuses in the Catholic church is a classic example.  We assume now that everyone who interacts with children is predatory and thus we’ve created boundaries and walls and assumed guilt and an environment of suspicion. There now little Johnny, you’ll be safe!  Of course you won’t know what to do with yourself when you need comfort and you won’t think you could ever trust an adult, and you will develop attitudes that present no sense of community or interdependence on your peers or cultural identity and you will develop into someone who is more likely to perpetrate a mass shooting because of your disconnectedness and mistrust of others…but you’ll be safe! 

The current state of affairs is not just about the assumption of privilege by white men.  It is about the assumption of privilege being played out in a culture of trauma.  The million white man march of the tea party is reactionary; it is a symptom, it is not the problem.  Certainly, we need to fix the symptoms: racism, homophobia, classism, sexism, ageism, etc., but we need to go to the root of a national consciousness that is in deep and excruciating pain.

I am frequently asked about God and religion.  This is a constant for anyone who is in seminary.  I always reply with “I” statements, because I deeply believe that faith is entirely personal and that although we can unite as people who experience faith, the expression of that faith is as variable as the people involved, even within faith traditions.  For me, I believe that that breaking the cycle of trauma is dependent upon faith, for the sake of a better word.  My “faith” is rooted in my interpretation of Christian teachings and Unitarian Universalist principles. For others, it may be in Islam, or Judaism, or Humanism or Hinduism.  It may be a “faith” that is not god centered at all.  But trauma, any trauma, can only be healed by the distinct belief that one is unconditionally safe and loved, where the cycle of anticipating harm or loss is broken and put to rest.

The Tea Party and the Million White Man March are not the enemy. Instead, it is very clear that in a changing world on shifting ground they do not believe that they will be safe and cared for as they had been in the mythical pre-Birth of a Nation past.  As a result, they are trying to create this safety just as they created Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz by elaborately and deliberately fabricating a world where Obama will ultimately be a scapegoat and everything will magically return to the “way things were.”

And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. (Matthew 8:26 – NRSV)

I see you Tea Party; I see who you are and I will not let your fear bring us all down.  I will acknowledge your pain, for we all share in the trauma; but I will call you out on your crap.  Just remember that ultimately I will love you all the same, as I ask you to love me, because ultimately that is the only way this cycle will end.

Do the Work at Hand

The bloggosphere is electric with reactions to the Trayvon Martin case.  I will keep this brief.  If you are in the clergy, bring your people together and comfort them, regardless of their race.  If you are preaching tomorrow, preach the sermon you intended, do not change your subject, rather offer a prayer for those who have come to this bizarre decision and a prayer for real change and real solutions to our colonial sickness.  If you are the member of a church come together with your youth and explain to them that they are safe; particularly if they are black and particularly if they are male.  Do not look for a reason to cause more harm here.  If you are not religious or part of a religious community, talk to your friends, your brothers and sisters, your family, and keep on talking.  We are stronger than this.

Tomorrow I will preach a sermon on Islam to a mostly white congregation.  I will preach about how I am as flawed as any racist or bigot and that in order to be the person of faith that I wish to be, I must acknowledge my failings and face them.  I ask you all as I will ask that congregation, before you react to today’s news, before you tell yourself that you are a good liberal; before you assume that you are immune to bias, look at yourself, ask yourself in your heart where you are broken and where you are flawed and dive deep into working with it to fix it in your heart.  This will allow you to see in the broken hearts of those who have just placed a young person’s life on a lower rung than that of a scared vigilante.

No injustice was ever solved by created greater injustices.  We can take back this country and our dignity and our future if we first learn how to truly love ourselves and one another.

A prayer to us all.