Village Church, Cummington, MA ~ June 2, 2013
Karen G. Johnston, Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry
“Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
“I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should show you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” “Looking into Darkness” by Rebecca Solnit
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” (Howard Zinn)
I live not that far from Amherst, so perhaps what I am about to say is, at best, ungracious, and at worst, disloyal, but…I am not fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I think her most famous line, “Hope is a thing with feathers…” is one that ensnarkens me the most.
Ensnarken? Don’t you know that verb? Well, of course you don’t, because I just made it up. Ensnarken. From the root, “snarky” which – and I did not know this – is a conjunction of “snide” and “remark” = snark. So, ensnarken means to evoke a snarky attitude in me.
I don’t really want that kind of hope…
I reminds me of one of the earlier advertizing schemes for Red Bull, the Energy Drink: “It Gives You Wiiings.” Not wings. But wiiings. W-I-I-I-N-G-S. Three I’s. This seductive, chemically-induced euphoria that comes with hyper-caffeine, this seduction that tells me that my body can do more, that I can stay up later, that I can think hyper-cogent thoughts, that I can counter the deleterious effects of alcohol with a supershot of energy. Falsehoods, all. Appearance, rather than substance. Wiiings that really have no flight of any consequence to offer. Just days of ensuing disrupted sleep, brain fog, and a dull headache. I don’t really want that kind of “hope” either…
I don’t want Hope with wiiings. I don’t even want Hope with wings. I want Hope with feet.
Hope with feet helps me to keep time with the crab scuttling rhythm of progress and change. I may be clumsy, even ungainly, as I follow this irregular and difficult-to-anticipate choreography, but there is something authentic, hopefully endearing, about such clumsiness. Hope with feathers would never allow me to hold that ax but hope with feet places me solidly in the doorway of that emergency so I can not only break down the door, but also walk out and into action.
I want my hopeful feet planted solidly on the ground – not to stay in place, but to move without being swayed. If I’m going to change my course – and I hope and assume I will, because I haven’t lost the potential to learn and change – I want it to be intentional, with a kind of spiritual fluidity, not that I was blown off course.
Hope with feet is what Tom Fox had. He was a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq. Kidnapped, help captive for many months, he was then murdered in 2006. Before leaving for Iraq, he wrote a statement of conviction, clarifying his and his group’s intention to be an independent presence in support of peace in that country torn apart by a war. It reads, in part:
As a peacemaking team we need to cross boundaries, help soldiers and other armed actors be humane, and invite them to refuse unjust orders. We need to help preserve what is human in all of us and so offer glimpses of hope in a dark time. We unequivocally reject kidnapping and hostage-taking. In such an event, CPT will […] work against journalists’ inclination to vilify and demonize the offenders. […]
The statement continues
We reject the use of violent force to save our lives should we be kidnapped, held hostage, or caught in the middle of a violent conflict situation. […] We forgive those who consider us their enemies. Therefore, any penalty should be in the spirit of restorative justice, rather than in the form of violent retribution.
Tom Fox practiced loving his enemy – a quintessential Christian value – one that seems to me to embrace pure contradiction, seems to declare the falsehood of duality. I am moved by his call to not vilify his kidnappers, to reject violent force in attempting to rescue him. It is powerful, this loving his enemy – and his murder does not make his words foolish or romantic, but calls all of us to live at an even greater depth of action in our lives, to give feet to the hope of which he offered glimpses in a dark time.
I think of another modern Christian martyr: Archbishop Oscar Romero nearly thirty years ago. Originally a cautious and conservative leader in the powerful Catholic Church in El Salvador, Romero was so moved by the injustice, the poverty, the violence, the cruelty experienced by the peoples of his land. He began to speak out against the government and military violence. The following words are often attributed to him:
This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
From his hierarchical pulpit, Romero moved from preaching about hope with feathers when his feet literally brought him to the reality of the people. With his hope with feet, he walked among the poor and oppressed, he exercised a preferential option for the poor – another key radical Christian concept. He moved from traditional Catholicism to the politically-infused Liberation Theology that was so alive at that time in Central and South America. He called for justice for the people and called on the Catholic Church to do the same.
He knew what he was doing was dangerous, but he also knew there was no other choice. On March 24, 1980 he was murdered.
Archbishop Romero knew that there were no guarantees, though he also seemed convinced that justice would reign in the end. He seems to have had peace in not knowing the results of his actions, “We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.”
Is this what Rebecca Solnit meant, from today’s first reading, when she said, “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed?”
Is that the attitude of which Joanna Macy speaks, when talking about the changes in our climate and our society that are soon upon us:
Still, it is easy to turn away from playing a part in the Great Turning. All of us are prey to the fear that it may be too late, and thus any effort is essentially hopeless. Any strategy we can mount seems so puny in comparison with the mighty systemic forces embedded in the military-industrial complex. The accelerating pace of destruction and contamination may already be taking us beyond those tipping points where ecological and social systems unravel irreparably. Along with the Great Turning, the Great Unravelling is happening too, and there is no way to tell how the larger story will end. So we learn again that hardest and most rewarding of lessons: how to make friends with uncertainty; how to pour your whole passion into a project when you can’t be sure it’s going to work. How to free yourself from dependence on seeing the results of your actions.
This is that crab of history scuttling this way and that, not knowing if it will head east or west, back or forth, in fact doing all that and more. Thomas Merton, the late Christian monk and mystic, wrote in a letter to a friend:
Do not depend on the hope of results…. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people…. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.
It is in personal relationship – the kind that bring on transformation, that involve sacrifice and not knowing, that can cause us to be bold where once we were cautious, to have hope where we once had cynicism, to have feet where once we had wings. Again, Joanna Macy’s words:
Whatever it is that you’re drawn to do in the Great Turning, don’t even think of doing it alone. The hyper-individualism of our competitive industrialized culture has isolated people from each other, breeding conformity, obedience and an epidemic of loneliness. The good news of the Great Turning is that it is a team undertaking. It evolves out of countless spontaneous and synergistic interactions as people discover their common goal and their different gifts.
We need to be in relationship with each other.
We need hope with feet as we walk along hospital and clinic corridors, weeping for and with our lover, our child, our fellow traveler from this congregation whom we sweetly anticipate seeing in the pew next to us, near us.
We need to sit together, here, in this holy house, sit here with our despair and with our hope, we need to leave here with our feet and just maybe, with our feathers, too. I offer this to you, a simple, spare poem by Elizabeth Barrette, called, “Origami Emotion.”
Folding paper cranes
Even when your hands get cramped
And your eyes tired,
Working past blisters and paper cuts,
Simply because something in you
Opening its wings.
Those are the kind of wings I can embrace. The kind of wings that may seem utterly paper-thin and fragile, but which hold within them a force powerful and so unexpected – like the statement of a man murdered in Iraq or like a cautious clergyman who dares his Church to take up the call for justice.
Like the kind of wings that just may spring from your back as you, again in Howard Zinn’s words, “remember those times and places…where people have behaved magnificently” and as you leave this house of worship with an ax in your hand and your feet full of hope.
May it be so. Amen.
*This is a revised version of a sermon given in 2006 at the Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence. It is also expanded from the oral version I delivered this morning (due to time constraints).
Solnit, Rebecca. “Looking into Darkness,” Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Nation Books, 2004.
The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb, Basic Books, 2004:
- “Origami Emotion” by Elizabeth Barrette
- “From Hope to Hopelessness” by Margaret Wheatley (Thomas Merton quote)
- “The Optimism of Uncertainty” by Howard Zinn
Stories of the Great Turning, edited by Peter Reason and Melanie Newman, Vala Publishing, 2013:
- “Introduction: Hearing the Call,” by Joanna Macy