Sunday, September 08, 2013

Peace for the Annoyed, Frustrated, Angry, Irate, Miffed, and Peeved

 I had the great honor of serving as the lay speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Eastern Slopes (UUFES) on Sunday, August 25. This is my sermon from that service. 

One night I was walking down Park St. in Concord, on my way to a NH Peace Action board meeting. Along the way, I ran into a fellow board member and we chatted as we walked. We began discussing some  politician who had said/done something stupid and I said, “I could just slap the snot out of that guy.” We looked at each other and quickly I said, “Now there’s a fine sentiment for a peace activist.” We laughed ruefully. But there you have it. How do we work for peace in an increasingly angry world?

Every day brings more reason to be aggravated – and that’s compounded by the knowledge that we don’t even hear half of the stories we should be hearing.

Peace activists are generally kindly, often spiritual people. Some are genuine peacemakers; able to bring disparate groups together and reach agreements. Some are peacekeepers; able to keep the peace at events where emotions are high and can get out of control. Naturally there are many UU’s who fall into these categories. They read spiritual texts, they meditate, they post Rumi quotes on their Facebook pages. As for me:  I have all of the spiritual depth of a Dixie cup. I wince at what appear to me to be platitudes. I’m cynical, sometimes bitter, and frequently angry. And I am not alone. As a friend says, "I say what I mean, I mean what I say, but sometimes I say it mean."

There is so much to be angry about. Prisoners are still being tortured at Guantanamo Bay. Still. Over half the federal discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon, while we’re told we have to cut food stamps and Social Security. That same Pentagon can’t pass an audit and can’t account for over a trillion dollars. That’s just a crumb from the table of outrage. There is so much more.

In general people seem angrier than they used to, although maybe that's just because people's opinions are more widely known than they used to be because of the internet and the ability to anonymously comment on news sites and blogs. The day that Bradley Manning came out as Chelsea, one of the first stories I saw advised, "Avoid all comment sections today." It was good advice. Too late, but good advice that hopefully others heeded.

Recently the Concord Police Dept. applied for a grant to the Dept. of Homeland Security to purchase an armored vehicle called a BearCat. My first reaction was predictable outrage. This was Pentagon/ defense contractor pork! This was the militarization of police departments! I went to a public hearing, and listened to the police chief. And against my will, I was swayed. I still disagree strongly with the sweetheart defense contractor deals and Pentagon pork – but I understand why the chief wants this vehicle. I’m very uncomfortable with how I feel right now. Why didn’t anyone tell me that I’d spend my whole life growing up? This thinking through stuff is painful. Knee jerk responses are so much easier and more comfortable!

Thinking can lead to anger. And fortunately, thinking can lead us out.

 A fellow NHPA board member loaned me his copy of William Sloane Coffin’s book Credo, saying that he reads it to feel good. “He was such an optimist,” Frank told me. Other members of the board have devoted a lifetime to peace activism, and have achieved a level of calm and acceptance that I admire and hope to one day claim for myself. John helped Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin attempt to levitate the Pentagon in 1967. He’s involved in the ongoing work to close down the School for the Americas, in Georgia – a US school that trains military leaders and future dictators of Latin America. Frank and John are smart, kind, and peaceful men who just keep going about the work that they have chosen to do. They’ve chosen their area of interest to work on, and they just keep plugging away.

Ruth McKay was a lifelong peace activist who died in 2005. She became a counselor to conscientious objectors in the 1960’s. She was active in the Civil Rights movement. After she married, she and her husband chose to live below the poverty level, to avoid paying taxes that went to fund war. I met Ruth and her husband Ralph in the 1980’s, while demonstrating at the nuclear power plant in Seabrook. We were arrested together a few times.  For decades Ruth had an ongoing vigil in front of the weapons manufacturer Sanders Lockheed in Nashua, which is now known as BAE Systems. Ruth called her actions dissent, saying that the word “protest” sounded “too angry.” Her form of principled, peaceful dissent resulted in numerous arrests for civil disobedience, where she won the admiration of police and judges for her calm demeanor, her principles, and her joyous personality. Ruth was a religious and spiritual person. Is there hope for those of us who are not?

How do we press forward in the face of outrage? How do we continue to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, when some persons might be found not just wanting, but perilously close to worthless?

Only with the greatest conscious effort. This is the real work of peace. It begins within. And with that work comes a level of acceptance of who and what we are, right here right now. I can continue to strive to be someone who posts Rumi quotes, but right now I am not.

Acceptance means accepting the excruciatingly slow pace of change.
Musician Greg Brown’s lyrics to the song “The Poet’s Game” echo my frustration:

I watched my country turn into
a coast-to-coast strip mall
and I cried out in a song:
if we could do all that in thirty years,
then please tell me you all -
why does good change take so long?

Martin Luther King assures us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I hate to get pushy about all this, but, I’m not getting any younger here, Positive Change. Could you pick up the pace a bit?

In this increasingly angry world, it's hard to know what to have faith in. So many of the institutions we were brought up to believe in are in disarray. The very rocks and trees are in peril as a result of our failures to take threats to them seriously. And because some of us are so intransigent, how do we have faith in our fellow humans? How do we have any faith in a positive future?

A union organizer I know says that given the correct information, most people will do the right thing. I'm not sure I share her optimism, but it seems to me that we have little choice. We have to have that faith. Without it, how can we go on?

Sloane Coffin writes:

Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Descartes too was mistaken; "Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am?" Nonsense. "Amo ergo sum" - "I love therefore I am." Or, as with unconscious elegance St. Paul wrote, "Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." I believe that. I believe it is better not to live than not to love.

In the end there aren't many choices. We can detach from the frenzy and refuse to participate. We can keep on swimming upstream, like salmon, battered occasionally against the rocks but powerless to resist the pull of nature, instinct - or the internet. We can strive for balance - find the work that calls to us and do it, setting limits and making sure to take time to enjoy all aspects of our lives.

What is increasingly clear to me though, is that I must/we must all keep trying to work for a peaceful world. In that, there is no other choice. When we fail at the high standards we set for ourselves, we must return to the wise words of Robert Eller- Isaacs in his Litany of Atonement (number 637 in the back of the hymnal)

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference
We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love
For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible
We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love
For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love
For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love
For the selfishness that sets us apart and alone
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love
For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love
For losing sight of our unity
We forgive ourselves and each other;
we begin again in love
For those and so for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness
we forgive ourselves and each other;
we begin again in love.

Over and over. Forgiveness. Love. Swords into plowshares. Over and over till we get it right.


Anonymous said...

A profound piece indeed. So many of us feel exactly this way. Clearly the rot starts at the top and works its way down to the rest of society. So much rage and anger in our nation. We should be happy but how can we when we kill millions around the world. We should sue the Federal Govt. and demand tax refunds for therapy that each and every one of us require for PTSD, living in fear, consistent and continued uncertainty and unending anxiety.

Notes for Robots said...

this is great, Susan

susanthe said...

Thanks, Notes for Robots.