What To Do When the World Falls Apart
Do you remember the movie, Bambi? The story about a cartoon deer, growing up in the forest? It’s generally considered to be a children’s movie; I’d venture to guess that the majority of us have seen it, including a majority of the children. It’s also a movie that’s pretty honest about fear and grief and loss. It has some very sad moments, and some hard truths in it. I wanted us to be together this morning – all of us, of every age – so that we could practice a similar honesty. In all times, but especially in times of crisis, people who care for and respect one another owe each other the truth, and this applies as much to children as to anyone else.
So I will say to all of you now a version of what my partner and I said to our children, on Wednesday morning: Donald Trump is going to be our next President. We didn’t want for it to happen, but it is. He’s promised to make a lot of bad rules, and to be mean and unfair to a lot of people. That’s why we’re worried, because we’re thinking about the people he may hurt. But we are going stay true to our values, and help each other stay strong, even as the world around us may not, because that’s what a family does. And the strength that we have as a family isn’t just going to be for us; we’re going to be strong together, and we’re going to use that strength to help other people who need it, because that’s another thing that a family does.
Wednesday was a hard morning for a lot of us, whether we were trying to explain the situation our country now finds itself in to our children, or simply to ourselves. The aftermath of the election, in terms of the scope and degree of emotional response in large numbers of people, felt a lot like what follows a natural disaster or other sudden loss of life. I don’t mean that as hyperbole, I mean it in a sober, measured way, as someone whose job it has been to accompany people in moments of profound trauma.
There’s a moment in Bambi, near the end, that’s very frightening. There’s a forest fire, and hunters, and a chase. Bambi leaps, and falls, and for a moment, we don’t know if he’s going to make it or not. If, after this week now passed, you empathize with that image, of a crumpled deer lying on the ground, then this sermon is intended to stand in for what happens next in the movie. The bent but unbroken young buck begins to stir and wobble to his feet, as from off-screen, we here a voice. It is Bambi’s father calling out, urgent, but clear. “Get up, Bambi! Get up!”
My instructions for what to do when the world falls apart are not limited to this particular situation, so any of you don’t resonate with the sense of calamity surrounding this election can keep them on hand; crisis comes to each of us in time, no matter how comfortable, or well-insulated we may be. The first one, you may have already heard: Go to church. When we are overwhelmed by the circumstances of life, we need to connect with others and to replenish our spiritual resources. It is an essential purpose of any spiritual community to sustain and support its members and friends in the hard work of living. Indeed, this is a definitional matter – any group that accomplishes this, however formal or informal, traditional or not, is a spiritual community, while any group which does not, no matter its historical purpose or identification with organized religion, ought not to flatter itself with the title of spiritual community. A good synagogue, temple, masjid, gurdwara, or church will be a natural supplier of many of the things you will need: solace, encouragement, the tools to forge meaning out of meaninglessness, people to work alongside, and, in the majority of cases, strong coffee. Church is also, and I hope this is obvious, a very appropriate place to cry.
The next step is to take stock of what has happened. I put this after seeking out a spiritual community because it is so easy to spin-out into the limitless depths of anxiety and self-doubt when we approach a dire situation from a place of isolation, without any grounding or anyone to offer a reality-check. What has happened, in this instance, is that a person who made bullying and hate-speech into a cornerstone of his campaign, and whose policies dehumanize and endanger immigrants, people of color, disabled people, Muslims, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and, in particular, transgender people – has been elected our President. And this, in turn, has further emboldened the most hateful and violent agents of white supremacy, Christian supremacy, male supremacy and heterosexual supremacy in our country. The social compact that pushed such overt contempt for the lives of others out of the mainstream of what is acceptable in society has been badly damaged. Through its cracks, very real danger is pouring through.
I don’t want to sugar-coat any of this, but I do want to say two things about it. The first is simply factual, the second is theological. First the fact: though he received the support of a terrifying number of people, Mr. Trump did not have the votes of even a majority of those voting, let alone of all citizens. If you are feeling alone, please remember that. As for the theological: there is an idea abroad in the land that good always triumphs over evil, that love always wins out over hate. It’s a pleasing sort of idea on its surface, but it can also lead us to blame ourselves when things go terribly wrong – we wind up excoriating ourselves and each other for the slightest hint of imperfection, thinking this must be the reason for our suffering. But the simple observation of history shows that this is not so: the right does not always win. Greed, contempt, and the thirst for power often succeed. That is why we are called to struggle so hard against them; it is why their challenge is always on-going, and why it has to be faced again and again by every generation in every new age. It is not that justice always prevails, but that justice always ought to prevail; it is always worthy of our highest effort, which is why every time its ideals are thwarted some of us humans pick the banner up again, and carry it on.
The third and final step we need to take when the world falls apart is to find out what can be done, and to do it. There is a pop song that’s been on the radio for the last little while. You may have heard it, perhaps, when you were frantically turning your radio dial away from NPR sometime in the last several days. In it, the singer asserts that he is willing to stand in harm’s way for a friend, even for a stranger. But then he immediately interrogates himself; it’s easy to make such a claim when there’s no danger at hand. He closes the thought with this line: “Hypothetically, I’m the man, but literally I don’t know what I’d do.” Well, friends, now we get to find out. Let me confess something to you, of which I am deeply ashamed: until Wednesday I had not realized how complacent I had allowed myself to get, under the Obama administration. I remained critical of many of the things my government does; signed petitions, went to rallies, campaigned for changes in the status quo. But on some level, I now must admit, I had begun to think that even if I managed only B-level work on behalf of justice and human dignity, the victories would keep rolling in. It was always a mistake to entertain that notion; the last five days have just made clear the depth of that mistake.
As the person this congregation has called to be its spiritual leader, I had to answer two questions on Wednesday, when it became clear how much greater the work of liberal religion was to become in the next four years. The first: are you ready to give yourself over to this struggle? I took my time to arrive at the answer, but humbly, and deeply aware of my own faults and limitations, I said, “Yes.” The second question was a lot like the first: is your congregation ready for the same? That answer came loud, and fast: “Heck, yes.” I am standing before you this morning because I trust you as co-workers in the labor justice, and I believe that you are up to the great challenge that history has placed before us. If I didn’t, I would have cried with you and held your hands on Wednesday, and turned in my keys on Thursday.
Many of us here this morning are afraid, afraid for our most basic wellbeing, with the election of a man who denigrates us and winks at violence against us. To you, my friends, I say much the same thing that I said to my children: we are going to help each other stay strong. Where your rights or your bodies are threatened, we will be there. We are going to uphold our values together and help to answer your fear with courage, because that is what a congregation does. And we are going to use the strength we build by standing up for one another to reach out and do the same for as many other people and as many other groups as we possibly can – because that is also something a congregation does.
Now, I need to say something to any of Mr. Trump’s supporters who may be listening. I don’t know for sure that you’re out there this morning, but I also don’t know for sure that you’re not. First, and I mean this quite truthfully, I want to thank you for showing up this morning, and for staying here. You had to know something like this was coming, and it’s likely harder-edged than you expected. I’m grateful you stuck with it. My message for you is this: I still love you. I meant what I preached last Sunday: whatever happened on Tuesday and whatever you did or did not do about it, you still have a place here, and I am still prepared to be your minister. I can’t imagine this has been a sterling week for you, either. Almost no one, and no one, I have to believe, who would have any interest in being here, relishes being associated with a figure scorned by so many around them. I would not be surprised if you felt some need for pastoral support in this, and I promise you I am available to supply it. Just call me, and let’s set an appointment; it is my duty, one I gladly perform, to care for the souls of my congregation. Our political disagreements are no barrier to this. But I want you to understand something up-front. Both because of his stated policy goals and the people that his rhetoric has given aid and comfort to, the election of Donald Trump has created very real danger for many of the people in this room. For members of your family, for neighbors, for strangers across the country and around the world who are entirely innocent and undeserving of this threat. And it is because I care about you, because I am called to be your pastor, that I am obligated to try to help you understand that. But in another four years, you can do the same thing over again, if you like. Just do not expect that your opposition will stop or slow down my or this congregation’s doing what we are called to do to confront hatred and injustice.
I cannot yet call what lies ahead for us good, but it is profound. We are going to need to speak out every time the rights of one of us or one of our neighbors in infringed. We are going to have to offer sanctuary to anyone and everyone who needs it. We are going to be called upon to answer every hateful word or deed stridently, with a love that knows there are some things love cannot abide. As a congregation, we’re going to find out how and when and where this manifests together; some of that discovery we’ll be doing today in fact, as we have an important discussion about our role in the work of racial justice after the service today, and I have already accepted an invitation to accompany our youth group to a vigil at the immigration detention facility in Boston later this afternoon – anyone who’s interested, you’re more than welcome to join us. But there are two other immediate things I want to offer you this morning. The first comes from a colleague, Rev. Ashley Horan, a practice she calls Neighborhood Love Notes. She’s inviting other Unitarian Universalists – and anyone else – to use chalk to make displays of love and beauty in the areas around their congregations and homes. Messages of welcome, inclusion, celebration and appreciation – much needed counterweights to a world now being crowded with contempt and scapegoating. Your chalk is waiting for you by the exits – please take some with you, and do wonderful things with it.
The second invitation involves the safety pins here on the altar. A few of you are already wearing them, so I know that the word is out that, in a practice originally imagined by an American living in Great Britain, a good many folks here in the US are wearing single, closed safety pins prominently on their clothing. This is meant to signify that the wearer is committed to extending safety to anyone who is marginalized or targeted. To watch for any threatening, bullying, or hateful behavior and to make it their business to come to the aid of whoever needs help. There is already, I’ll tell you, a backlash against all this, that it’s too easy and shallow. But I am offering it to you because I believe this safety pin is worth exactly as much as you commit to it. That’s why I’m distributing them without any ritual – rituals create social pressure to participate. I only want you to join me in this after you have reflected deeply and seriously on whether you will follow through on the unspoken pledge. Will you turn towards something ugly, when everyone else looks away? Will you trust a stranger who says, “I need help?” Will you practice de-escalating a situation, and tie your comfort and security together with someone else’s? As I said, the pins are here on the altar. You are free to take one – or not – following the benediction. In fact, if you are already wearing one, and what I have just said has given you some reservations about it, you are also welcome to leave yours in the bowl. Take some time to reflect, and to steel yourself for the work ahead. I’ll be happy to give you a new one, when you’re ready to put it on again.
We Unitarian Universalists have long been concerned less with the mysteries beyond death than with the way humans create paradise or perdition here on earth. It’s been a hell of a week. So, sprinkled with tears as necessary, let’s get back out into the world, and help to heal it.