New Member Sunday
The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ
Not long after the presidential election, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder published an article that has been republished all over the internet and was turned into a little book. This little book. Originally titled, “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America,” in book form it is called, On Tyranny with a slight reordering and expansion on each of the lessons.
As you can see, it’s small – 126 pages that more or less fit in the palm of my hand. It gives the false impression that it’s a quick read. An easy read. Maybe so. But I haven’t been able to put the book down. I mean, I’ve read the book through; it didn’t take all that long. But I haven’t been able to let go of it. I return to it. Often. Sometimes in my mind; sometimes in hand.
Some of the twenty lessons are what you might expect:
- § do not obey in advance;
- § defend and strengthen institutions;
- § believe in truth;
- § hinder the one-party state.
And some of them take a little more time to understand the connection:
- § establish a private life; or
- § give regularly to good causes.
And then there is #11: “Make eye contact and small talk.”
Seriously? Does this mean that introverts cannot resist fascism, only extroverts can? I sure hope not.
And secondly, doesn’t this lesson kinda seem, well, ummm, superficial and insufficient? Well, Snyder follows up with additional detail:
This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
Dang. He’s not joking around. That’s some serious covfefe. In fact, when Snyder expands on this lesson (moving it from #11 to #12) in the book, he doubles down:
Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the twentieth century, but memoirs of their victims all share a single tender moment. Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy in the 1920s, of Nazi Germany of the 1930s, of the Soviet Union during the Great Terror of 1937-38, or of the purges in communist Eastern Europe in the 1940s and ‘50s, people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting – banal gestures in a normal situation – took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew. You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.
In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change. (On Tyranny)
I could give you the sermon on the fluffy lovely part of community, of how good it feels to build community, to be a part of a healthy community, how it’s just the right thing to do to get your own needs met, just the right thing to obtain “spiritual satisfaction” as our Bond of Union says.
But I can’t.
So I won’t. (Not this year. Not at this time.)
This morning we officially welcome six new adult members – and their families – into this congregation. As I said earlier, even before they joined, we were already whole and yet somehow, by joining, they make us more whole. Each of us and all of us: more whole. What, if anything, does that have to do with resisting tyranny?
In that beautiful song that Patty and Doug performed for us, we get to sneak a peek into the lives of fellow humans who are strangers to us, though less so once we know their story. The song’s refrain tells us that in knowing these folks stories we become witness to their lives and as such, we engage in what some might call, what I call, a spiritual act:
Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind
What if that was the case every time we come into this place? What if we were to talk not just to our friends or folks we already know, but were to talk with people we barely know? If those of us without kids, or whose kids are grown, we were to talk with the children, get to know them by name? Or choose to talk with the very people who annoy us? What if we were to share our own and listen to each others’ stories like it was an act of spiritual communion, “eggs and toast like bread and wine”?
Are we already doing this? I hear sometimes yes. I see sometimes no. Can we do better? I know I could do better: I know that sometimes – one of you approaches me and my mind is careening everywhere rather than staying in place with you.
It’s worth reflecting whether we are listening and witnessing with just some people – our friends, our peeps – but not with others, leaving perhaps new folks or visitors to folks on the Membership Committee or who are greeters at the front door or some other “somebody else”? How do we all, each of us, all of us, own that this is not a role or a task, but a way of being in relationship with each other, a way of embodying the interdependent web of all existence, a way of “doing church”?
What would it take right now to act as if the person next to us – whether known for years; known somewhat; known just today — how might we act if that person is exactly what we need to be more whole?
And what if it’s not about our own personal wholeness or even our congregation’s sense of wholeness, but is about sustaining the wholeness of our democracy? What if small acts of making eye contact and engaging not only in small talk, but in deep talk, or in embodying covenantal relationships where we stay at the table in good and hard times, or in strengthening institutions through acts of choosing to become a member of this very congregation, what if these were acts of resistance against the rise of authoritarianism that is in our midst?
Not the only act. One of twenty in Snyder’s case. Gene Sharp, exalted founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and studier of non-violent struggles, created a list of 198 distinct acts of waging non-violent struggle. And Parker Palmer has five habits of the heart to heal democracy.
Parker Palmer is a prolific writer, a Quaker, and the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. You’ve heard me mention his name before. He’s written many books, including Healing the Heart of Democracy. He’s friends with another spiritually and politically engaged modern Quaker: Carrie Newcomer, who composed this mornings anthem, “Betty’s Diner.” You might recognize her name; she also penned the anthem that our pop-up choir sang at the installation of our shared ministry a month ago.
In a video conversation between these two friends and collaborators, Newcomer names the question at the heart of her song, and then answers it. “Where does the spirit of goodness move through our lives?” Her answer? “Sometimes it’s in the expected places. But often it’s in the daily and even unexpected places we encounter it. When people come together from all kinds of backgrounds and areas and [from] their stories.”
Parker Palmer adds, “If only we invited those stories out more often, we’d live in a better world.”
He says this as someone who appreciates art, who appreciates humanity, but also as someone deeply committed to democracy. Palmer began writing his book on healing the heart of democracy in 2004 and finished it in 2010 – certainly before the current iteration of the political mess in which we find ourselves, but not before its precursors and roots were beginning to take shape and take hold, as Parker, among many others, were observing.
One of the many points that Palmer makes is that democracy doesn’t happen just in Congress or just on Capitol Hill, but in the ordinary places of our lives: diners, yes, and also on sidewalks and in schools or at city parks and on the streets and sidewalk cafes, libraries and yes, in congregations: in our daily communities. I’m guessing that he and Timothy Snyder, that professor from Yale, would be in agreement here.
Whereas Snyder encourages us to save democracy through eye contact and small talk (among other quite serious things), Parker advocates that our democracy would be healthier if we all walked more often on urban sidewalks. This suggestion is in direct contrast to walking the sidewalks of suburbia where Palmer suggests that the advent of Suburbia and its sidewalks is part of the wider erosion of our democratic foundation in this country. He encourages us to take up, as a civic, as well as spiritual, practice, the act of walking urban sidewalks, providing us the opportunity to practice negotiating our “life in the company of strangers” and “the dance of public life.” He writes:
“All forms of life together—from intimate personal relations, to the family, the workplace, and civil society—require us to learn to dance with others while stepping on as few toes as possible! Simply walking down a crowded city sidewalk—and learning that we can reach our diverse destinations without slamming into each other IF we know how to dance—is a subliminal lesson in what it takes to make democracy work.”
Of course, this is not this is not sufficient in and of itself. Walking sidewalks, or talking to strangers in diners, will not keep the democratic experiment vibrant, or given the current threats, alive. We must find our ways into engaging what Snyder calls ‘corporeal politics,’ which some of you do, having joined some of the numerous grassroots organizations that have sprung up across the land and across New Jersey. In joining the board of the UU Legislative Ministry of NJ beginning next month, helping to grow our UU legislative advocacy voice in this state, it is my hope to do my part in this regard.
Given his appreciation for Newcomer’s song, I’m pretty sure that in addition to embodying democracy through walking urban streets, Palmer would also praise the choice of eating in diners as a civic and spiritual practice. Given that New Jersey has more than its fair share of diners, what if we were to move our acts of resisting tyranny and strengthening democracy to the diner nearest you: beholding our fellow human creatures and our shared humanity, mustering the courage to start up a conversation and learn a fellow human creature’s story.
I don’t know how realistic it is to consider each of us going out to our local diner and listening to a stranger’s story with compassion and possibly with an eye to strengthening our democratic institutions or following any of the other lessons – stand out, practice corporeal politics, learn from peers in other countries. If you try this out, be sure to let me know how it went.
And as you are trying it out, at the diner, or perhaps at your local Freeholders meeting (and big shout out to Laura Merz who spoke at the Middlesex County Freeholders meeting this past Thursday on behalf of the County improving its protocol for how it interacts with ICE regarding detainment of folks who are undocumented), — or even here at coffee hour while we are here, all in one place, the wants and wounds of the human race, despair and hope sitting face to face after we’ve come in from the cold, keep in mind and in heart not only these lessons and habits of how to strengthen the resilience of our democratic ideals, but also the truth spoken in our reading from Mark Nepo:
I have discovered everything
I could need or ask for
is right here—
in flawed abundance.
We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life
we are small living things
awakened in the stream,
not gods who carve out rivers.
Like human fish,
we are asked to experience
meaning in the life that moves
through the gill of our heart.
There is nothing to do
and nowhere to go.
we can do everything
and go anywhere.