[Sometimes I dimly recall the days] when I felt, like many others, that my life served no purpose. Do you remember any such days?
It was as though we all lived in tunnels then, crowded in with some stranger’s furniture, with more furniture arriving all the time.
For me, the terrifying part was the ease with which you could lose your imagination – just abandon it, like a gadget.
Everything was supplied, even if you had to pay for it all…
In every quarter of life it seemed, we were retreating into fundamentalism. The yes/no of belief, the in/out of fashion,…the hot/cold of commitment,… the forward/backward of machinery, the give/take of a deal.
Anyone not polarized became an inconvenience…People endorsed the identification of enemies and their eradication, just to be rid of some of the inevitable blurring.
We didn’t hear enough then about making the enemy irrelevant. No one said, loud enough to be heard over the din…, “Let’s make something beautiful, so the enemy will have one less place to stand.”
Sermon: Factions We Love
Last December, we held a holiday party for our then-Sanctuary guest, Ingrid.
It turned out, it was also a going-away-party, since the next morning she left to take sanctuary at the UU church in Boulder, where she is still.
But we’d learn that later. That night, most of us only knew it as an evening for organizing, and courage-boosting, and community-building. And celebrating the holidays, together.
Ingrid had cooked posole all day and the social hall smelled so good. The room was filled not just with church members but with members of the wider community.
It was the perfect example of the tangled blessing.
Because actually we were together to resist this great injustice embodied in this fierce and now-famous woman who had run out of options for legal residency in this country where she’s spent over half her life, and where her two children were born and raised. She’d decided that the best alternative to complying with a deportation order to return to a country where she faced danger and knew mostly no one was what I’ve come to think of as “church jail.”
Having Ingrid here those few months was a daily reminder of this humanitarian crisis we’ve created in this country – a crisis that’s been made worse in recent months through the implementation of so-called Zero Tolerance aka family separation aka generational trauma.
Except that on that night it was not traumatic, it was joyous, and invigorating, and regular…beautiful.
It was a room of all ages and different cultures, beliefs and citizenship statuses, professions and languages.
It was courageous love in practice, and the best of who we are.
About mid-way through the night, I heard some talk about the night ending with a piñata.
Although I had some anxiety about the dark and the bat and the small children running around, it was una fiesta, so, que bueno!
That is, until someone told me that one of the piñatas was a giant Trump head.
Either Eleanor or Sean or maybe both asked me, when they heard, they came to me and asked with a certain urgency: are we really ok with that?
I confess, for a flash I thought: maybe?
And then I remembered myself. And us.
And I said no, of course not.
We can’t be ending the night by violently attacking Trump’s head. Even if it is just papier-mâché.
Even if it was filled with candy, as my 10-year-old told me angrily that night.
He was so mad at me for stopping it.
He still brings it up sometimes, whenever we talk about Trump, because it wasn’t just about the candy.
How it wasn’t fair I wouldn’t let him smash the Trump head piñata.
It would have been so fun, to hit it and watch it fly, while the other kids, and probably some grown ups, cheered around him.
I know, I say, but it’s not who we are.
Which, most of the time, I believe.
We are living in a time of profound political polarization, and division. I’ve heard it said so often in recent years, it feels almost cliché.
Polarization in the US is not entirely new, but there are some particular ways that it is playing out differently today. Those who have studied it say it has its roots in Nixon’s impeachment, when the Republican party was in disarray. Ideological purity and refusal to compromise became strategies, tactics for reclaiming power. Successful ones, it turns out.
Democrats were slow-ish to pick up on the new patterns, but with the Clinton impeachment of the 90s, and the Bush/Gore supreme court decision – they got up to speed, so that by the time Barack Obama was president, despite his sweeping rhetoric, and audacity of hope, habits were well-established, as the grooves of polarization were by then, well-worn.
Most everything calls it political polarization. But it’s not really confined to the politics these days.
As the organization “More in Common” describes it, “bitter debates that were once confined to Congressional hearings and cable TV have now found their way into every part of our lives, from our Facebook feeds to the family dinner table.” And from personal experience I’d add, from school playgrounds and PTA meetings to the workplace and the hospital room.
It’s a phenomenon that US Scholar Steven Webster describes as “affective polarization.” Affective = the heart. It’s basically the trend towards mutual dislike between Republicans and Democrats, starting with the politicians themselves, but then over time, translating into the electorate directly.
As a recent article by Stephen Marche put it, “Political adversaries regard each other as un-American; they regard the other’s media, whether Fox News or the New York Times, as poison or fake news. A sizable chunk also don’t want their children to marry members of the opposing party….affective polarization is a crisis that transcends Trump. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, the underlying threat to American stability would be as real as it is today. Each side – divided by negative advertising, social media, and a primary system that encourages enthusiasm over reason – pursues ideological purity at any cost because ideological purity is increasingly the route to power.”
Today marks the beginning of our new series Divided No More. It’s a series we planned a long time ago – probably the most obvious series to decide on for the whole year. Because we anticipated the energy many would feel in this final push towards election day – energy, or anxiety, or exhaustion. Maybe all of these.
It’s not unusual for Unitarian Universalists to be dedicated, democratically speaking.
And of course you can take that to mean both the governmental system and the party called democrat, as progressive politics and progressive religion seem to have an even greater correspondence than I’ve seen before, which is saying something.
When I first came into Unitarian Universalism, I was really passionate about the need to distinguish between religious and political liberalism. I had heard stories of UU communities in the 1980s being confused with gatherings for the democratic party, and I understood how critical it was to ask ourselves how we are living in to our moral, ethical, and theological calling – our faith. Rather than accidentally parroting the framework and the strategies of the political left.
I admit, however, this has become more confusing in the past few years, as this sorting has reached far beyond some quarantined space called “politics,” and instead has indicated a kind of cultural, tribal, and even – as Emma Green described in a recent Atlantic article – religious – ethos.
Modern politics, especially on the right, has often included a religious component – the so-called values voter, the moral majority, and the other false-equivalencies of religiosity and Christian fundamentalism have been the story of conservative politics for nearly my whole life.
But in the past few years, another sort of religious alignment has grown, this time on the left, or rather an alignment with those who are explicitly non-religious.
Nearly 30 percent of democrats – and the most active and motivated among them – according to recent surveys – identify as unaffiliated religiously.
I wondered how in these surveys Unitarian Universalists were counted, though…?
Because often you get questions like: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or none of the above…” or maybe even “Atheist/agnostic.” Which one would we pick?
Green reports that these same “non-religious” extremely enthusiastic folks are currently embracing their political identity and affiliation in ways similar to how they might otherwise embrace religious and cultural identity and practices.
As Green says: “This [progressive] political identity … is basically acting as a replacement for people who maybe a generation or two before would identify as Catholic or as Jewish…..the Democratic Party is going through a transformative moment of both sentiment and identity. Progressive politics [offers] a form of meaning making, especially if [people] are disconnected from other forms of ethnic or religious identity….
So much of this is wrapped up in people’s ideas of who they are and where they belong.”
In today’s often-isolating world, the flip side of political polarization is the fact of these factions that also feed us, factions that we love – and that love us, communities and affiliations that become in and of themselves, antidotes to loneliness, sanctuaries of mutual support, and safety, and again – belonging.
I mean, it feels good to repost that highly partisan meme. It feels good to get the likes. And it is comforting to watch Rachael Maddow and Chris Matthews – like gathering around a cozy campfire with your people who speak your language.
And, there’s nothing like a shared enemy to help a group bond, and strengthen that shared identity – deepen that sense of belonging.
Which is why, instead of understanding this moment as affective polarization, we’d be better off thinking of it as affective identification. Where we are feeding this shared longing for an ongoing sense of community and emotional support – a sense of belonging – from those who share our same orientation.
With all this said, we should be clear that the rising sense of polarization and division is an overwhelmingly white phenomenon.
White people in the US are more divided and polarized than ever before.
For most people of color, this sense of division, and danger from “the other,” – this is old news. So that what feels like regression for some, might actually feel more like progress for others, where white folks – at least some – are actually, finally, waking up.
As Marche describes: “During the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush years, there really wasn’t as much of a difference between the racial attitudes of white people in both parties. That’s no longer true…According to [recent surveys], half of Republicans agree that increased racial diversity would bring a “mostly negative” impact to American society…The Republican Party has become the party of racial resentment. If it seems easier for Americans to see the other side as distinct from themselves, that’s because it is.”
After the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the public radio program Fresh Air replayed an interview from last April, where Terry Gross spoke with Derek Black – a former leader in white nationalism who has since had a change of heart and now works to fight it.
In the wake of the worst anti-semitic act of violence on US soil, Fresh Air replayed the conversation, as many of us try to understand what has led to the increased power and legitimacy given to the forces of hatred, racism, and prejudice in this country – and, how to stop it. One of the things Black described was how white nationalists intentionally seized Obama’s presidency to speak into the unresolved and sometimes sub-conscious racial anxiety and racial resentment felt by many white Americans.
As the interview describes: “Polls consistently show that 30 to 40 percent of white Americans believe that they experience more discrimination and more prejudice than people of color or than Jews, which is factually incorrect by every measure that we have. … [But] by feeding that sense of grievance and by playing to these ideas of your country is being taken away, [that] things are changing…” self-identified white nationalists have been able to make real headway into local and even statewide elections.
This week as I was explaining to my kids, or really, failing to explain to my kids, the history of anti-semitism, I started to feel overwhelmed at what feels like an infinite well of unresolved trauma across human history, and the incomprehensible failure – across all the generations – to do the real work of reconciliation, reparation; the failure to tell the stories so much so that we now have such a terribly underdeveloped language to even speak about the violence we have done, and had done to us.
When we sit with our history, and really let it sink in. The fact that we find ourselves in this moment seems not just understandable, but predictable. There’s so much human work that was left undone, work that does not just go away with the passing of time. Work of mending and tending, healing and transforming; holy work, spiritual work, religious work.
Work that asks us to step back from political affiliation as a stand-in for religion, and instead ask what our actual religion offers us, and requires of us in these times, in this moment.
Because while the political framework might give us a sense of belonging – it is a limited sense, and one that contradicts the most central claim of our faith – this claim that we all belong to each other.
All of us. That we are all ultimately in this life together, interconnected, interdependent. And that salvation, liberation, healing, wholeness – these are for all of us, or none.
And here I want to underscore that central claim of our faith does not requires us to seek common ground – but only a common humanity. Sean’s going to speak more on this next week.
And it’s not even a claim that affirms an underlying same-ness.
Rather, it’s a commitment that I sometimes think of as theological self-differentiation.
Where we stubbornly refuse to let the actions of another dictate the orientation of our own hearts. Where we commit to seeing in the other – regardless of their actions, their words, their choices – a human. A human with a story. A human with complex and contradictory and often irrational beliefs – like all humans. A human who loves and longs for belonging, as all humans do.
It is a faith commitment to the idea that there is a through-line across all of us – a connective force, that cannot be undone, a connective force of love. And it is a commitment that no one, no matter what, is beyond the reach of Love, and Love’s transforming power.
Most of all it is a commitment to live out of this commitment, everyday. To put our energy into making something beautiful, so that the ugliness has one less place to stand.
Or rather, it’s a commitment to try.
Because some days it seems totally right and good that we should smash a Trump head piñata.
So then on those days, the commitment is also to remember that the reach of love includes us, to receive that grace too.
Which can sometimes be the hardest thing.
And then the commitment is just to trust that there is always so much more at work than we can see, or know, or understand. And so we can only give thanks, that we can be a part of it all, and keep trying do our part, in love.