February 23, 2020
The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ
Reverend Karen G. Johnston
“…we are, indeed, facing the end of the world. Not the literal end of civilization or the human species, but a transition so profound that on the other side of it, it will seem like we are living in a different world. That is how deep the changes must go for the ecological crisis to be resolved. We face an initiation, a metamorphosis, into a new kind of civilization. From this place, what is possible, practical, and realistic changes as well. Our successful graduation to a new world is by no means guaranteed; [there is the] necessity of a death phase, the dying of our present collective self, [yet we struggle to] see the rebirth. And that is normal. In a true initiatory ordeal, often there is a moment when there seems no hope of ever making it through.[i]” Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
It is possible that I have watched too much of the Walking Dead or the Norwegian thriller, Occupied – though I think one cannot watch too much of the latter. Or that I read too many dystopian novels. I recognize that there are those more hardcore than I.
I think I get extra points because I took a seminary class solely on the Book of Revelation, a special hell all of its own. The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Christian Scriptures, responsible for so many of our cultural reference points for the Apocalypse, like the four horsemen. But not the rapture, no matter what the rapturists say — it’s not actually in there.
I do not have a bunker filled with two years’ worth of food. But I do have a three-month supply (which, it turns out, is what the Church of the Latter-Day Saints encourages its members to have). I have not bought either a full floor, or even a half floor, in the condominium complex built in empty missile silo (exact location undisclosed). Even if I had an extra $2.4 million in cash to cover the cost, I wouldn’t. More within my means, I have not bought a time share at one of the franchise locations of Fortitude Ranch, where $1,000 annually buys not only a rustic vacation setting for ten days every year, but also access to an escape destination during the collapse, payable by crypto-currency. **
It is true that I am more than curious about what it will take to survive, if not the Apocalypse, then the approaching collapse that many suggest is in the foreseeable future – whether due to the climate crisis, or to the steady slide toward authoritarianism not only in this nation but throughout the world, or the convergence of both.
And I am deeply committed to cultivating personal and community capacities to survive not at any cost, for I find that a repugnant goal, but to build compassionate, resilient “islands of sanity[ii]” that just might be possible beyond the Apocalypse.
When you think about collapse or about what an imminent apocalypse might look like, what comes to mind?
Is it the spread of a new virus that fells an unfathomable number of humans?
Is it the relentless melting of our polar ice caps that leads scientists to propose building a 300-mile dam between Scotland and Norway?
The mass extinctions of so, so many species of both flora and fauna?
Is it the coming down of the electrical grid that leaves those of us who have become so dependent on our technology adrift in a sea of relative isolation and irrelevant skills? Or blocks access to life-sustaining medicines or treatments?
Is it those images seared into our brains from the hellscapes of wildfires throughout the globe?
Is it deep corruption of civic institutions, a justice system doubling down on its foundations of systemic racism, rising misogyny-fueled acts of violence, and the spreading white Christian ethno-nationalism[iii]?
What if, as our opening words from Chelsea MacMillan point to, this death knell collapse, this possible apocalypse, is the lifting of the veil on a world that for far too long has been saturated in separation and greed[iv]? A painful lifting of the veil, a chaotic one, to be sure. One which is real, not metaphorical, not poetic. Yes, in which suffering is exacerbated, but which may be necessary before our collective compass might return to the deep, saving truth of our interconnectedness, from which we have strayed so damn far.
For that is the original meaning of apocalypse – not the end of the world, and definitely not judgement day, but, if we go back to the original Greek, an unveiling or an uncovering. Which is another way to say a revealing – a revelation, and hence the title of that book from Christian Scriptures, which barely made it into the Christian canon.
You see, back when that was written, there were many, many apocalyptic writings. Learned people naming corruption, speaking out against false gods, calling us to return to living within the limits of natural laws. I don’t know what you are reading, or what is appearing on your media feed, but I am seeing alot of this.
What if we are facing an ecological apocalypse, not because we are facing so many forms of extinction (we are), but because we have the opportunity to accept the invitation of apocalypse, of uncovering falsities, and return to right relationship with Nature, with the planet, with other sentient beings, with each other.
What if our task now, in this moment not so much of pre-apocalypse, but the happening apocalypse (ask the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, in Louisiana, who have had to be relocated en masse, as a whole community, because their home of centuries is now drowning in salt and sinking into the sea, unlivable[v]), is to
Practicing resilience with our hands. With these hands. With your hands. With our hands and with our hearts.
Practicing now because if we wait for additional, more frequent catastrophes to begin, it will be too late.
What do I mean by resilience? More than avoiding headaches from caffeine deprivation, though that’s a strategy worthy of consideration, especially for a people – I’m looking at you, Unitarian Universalists – who claim coffee as our holy water.
According to David Fleming, resilience is the “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing changes so as to still retain the same function, structure, identity, and feedback[vi],” both in a preventive way (ahead of time) and in an elastic way (during and after the fact). Resilience is emergent, meaning that we can’t know all of what makes up resilience because it emerges as part of the process of practicing it.
Resilience exists on multiple levels[vii], including in ourselves and those we love and in our communities, networks, and organizations. The Emotional Resilience Toolkit for Climate Work,[viii] written by a group of psychotherapists in the Pacific Northwest, tells us that
Emotional resiliency includes increasing our capacity to bear witness to the difficulties we are facing; sharing our experiences with the support of others through community care help increase that ability.
Resiliency expert Andrew Zolli says that resilient communities are
1) built before you need them and
2) rooted in generosity.
As a congregational minister, these two gems resonate, not only about an impending collapse, but for sustaining a healthy congregation. Relevant, too, is this reminder to be rooted in generosity. Too often I have heard cross the lips of congregational members the desire to add new members in order to make pledging goals – an attitude fed by a self-serving form of scarcity, rather than generosity; meeting our needs, already established, than reaching out and inviting in based on the needs of others.
Not that long ago, I was in a conversation with the executive director of a local soup kitchen and we ended up on the topic of surviving in the midst of chaos. She told me how the soup kitchen stayed open throughout Super Storm Sandy, how there was no chaos within their walls, how the guests – primarily folks who are often homeless – kept order and ensured mutual care and protection. I came away from that conversation convinced that the guests of that, or perhaps any, soup kitchen, were more likely to be resilient in the face of catastrophe than I am. More likely than any congregation, particularly ones that struggle with fake fights within their walls, or who live in a protected isolation that does not require the practicing this kind of messy, inconvenient interdependence.
It was a sobering realization.
It may be true that knowing how to shoot a gun is useful in a zombie apocalypse, as I have learned from The Walking Dead. However, and I say this having grown up in gun country, just as important, and perhaps more so, is knowing when to shoot that gun and when not to.
And perhaps most important of all is how to de-escalate conflict among a group of people who are traumatized, freaked-out, and reactive. As such, I am most interested in the realm of emotional, psychological, and spiritual resilience and how to grow this in both individuals and communities.
How to grow our capacity to return to the table – again, and again, and again — when we have been in conflict.
How to tolerate and manage discomfort and strong emotions so that behavior can be intentional, rather than impulsive.
How to prioritize connection, especially with people not gathered together because we are of like-mind, but because we find ourselves in close proximity – as simple as the semi-lost art of knowing our neighbors.
How to notice how resource scarcity can cause us to exclude and narrow, then practicing its opposite: wide sharing and radical inclusion.
How to build communities and networks now, before they are necessary. Rooting them in generosity. With these hands. With these hearts.
Chris Begley sounds like he is a bit of a Renaissance man. A professor of anthropology at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, he is also an archeologist. He has worked throughout the world, studied the collapse of civilizations, and is a wilderness survival instructor. Last fall he wrote op-ed piece[ix] that caught my eye. In it, he wrote that even though he could teach basic outdoor survival skills – how to make shelter, or fire, or how to orient oneself – these are not the skills one needs to survive collapse:
We will not be by ourselves, with only the people we choose, avoiding those we do not understand or trust. We will not be free from the need to cooperate and compromise.
Begley goes on to say
While the wilderness survival skills certainly can’t hurt, it will be empathy, generosity, and courage that we need to survive. Kindness and fairness will be more valuable than any survival skill. Then as now, social and leadership skills will be valued. We will have to work together. We will have to grow food, educate ourselves, and give people a reason to persevere. The needs will be enormous, and we cannot run away from that. Humans evolved attributes such as generosity, altruism, and cooperation because we need them to survive. Armed with those skills, we will turn towards the problem, not away from it. We will face the need, and we will have to solve it together. That is the only option.
That, he says, is what survival looks like.
Let us reclaim apocalypse, admitting to ourselves, each other, and the wider world that it – the Great Unveiling — is happening now.
Let us strip away the lies of self-sufficiency and despair, finding our way back to the truth of our interconnectedness.
Let us cultivate the kind of resilience that looks like courage, that looks like caring, that looks like connection, that looks like compassion, all of which we are going to need when the world looks a lot different than it does now.
Let us, with hands and hearts, build connection, relish transformation, cultivate resilience.
Let the lyrics of this morning’s anthem be our company in the days and times to come:
What are you gonna do about it, when the world comes undone?
My voice feels tiny and I’m sure so does yours.
[Let us put it] all together [and] make a mighty roar
Amen. Blessed be.
** thank you to my colleague. Rev. Scot Giles, for his sermon, which sent me down the preppers wormhole.
[i] Eisenstein, Charles. Climate: A New Story, p. 73
[ii] Wheatley, Margaret. Who Do We Choose To Be, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017.