Duncan preached this sermon in Castine, Maine in November, 2018. It remains constantly relevant.
“Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” So wrote Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, on the mechanics of totalitarianism.
I have given myself that giant task: to find and offer some illumination in this, one of the darkest of times.
The mechanics of totalitarianism–all the turning gears, big and tiny! These machinations are chewing up our sanity.
I believe we are, left and right, blue and red, now all a little bit crazy after the election of 2016. And I want to talk with you, my old friends, about the darkness and the illumination that I see.
I promise to not re-traumatize you by a sermon. I am honored to be here and count our past journey together as one of the substantial joys of Rebecca’s and my life. And of course I am so sorry that Kent Price is not here with us now, as he was my first link to you all. I’ll never forget hearing how he laughingly reported about our first phone conversation, “I love this guy.” Surprised me, and then of course I came to love him too.
So I have a doctorate in preaching which means of course that I am supposed to be really good at this—like at the brain surgeon level of preaching. Well, I did learn this–that one thing you never do in sermons is to assault people with images of violence and the direct sounds of things too hard to hear. But it is almost impossible to focus attention on the political and psychological culture we are now in without doing that. Most people I know turn off the news as often as they turn it on, and I recommend that. So, I want to be careful with us all here.
The only way I have found to look at the darkness and illumination is to tell you a little of what this American season is like for me, a season that is reaching a fever pitch this coming Tuesday. And I foresee that we are in for even greater and greater monstrous moments in the coming days, if not years. I will be as careful of our sensibilities as I can be.
I believe our time is the fourth really hard time in our history. The American Revolution, The Civil War. World War II, and now. I believe this is worse than the discord of the 60’s with the assassinations and the riots and the Vietnam War. That was all extreme but it wasn’t unrecognizable.
Many people in my profession as a psychotherapist started, after the election, to report patients who were afraid, anxious, and confused by the advent of the Trump presidency. Severely disoriented. People were sleepless, depressed, anxious, distracted, moody, and talking about it in therapy sessions. I have been a psychotherapist for decades and I never ever had a patient whose session centered on something political, even something from the news, even after 9/11. Therapy was always contained within a private bubble, the most private bubble. But not so after November of 2016.
Moreover therapists began to reach out to each other, even in national networks, about our own troubled thoughts and feelings. I belong to the Northeast Guild of Spiritual Directors and we had a series of group circle meetings just to talk about what we felt and thought. We were in shock. And we were dismayed. And we felt betrayed. And we needed to talk with each other.
We who have suffered trauma, sexual or violent, as I have, began to have bad dreams. I had direct dreams of a bully man coming after me. I was back on the elementary school recess playground. And I can only imagine how LGBT people must feel, along with people of color, or people of immigrant status, or people with disabilities , or people like Christine Blasey Ford. Or even now political leaders faced with bomb threats, and journalists with worse.
So the short of it is that our starting point is the real level of psychological distress of the deepest sort abroad in the land now. We don’t really fully get what is going on, much less agree on how to think and to act, as Lincoln said, “anew.”
What is different from either of the wars fought here, the Revolutionary and the Civil wars, or the turmoil of the 60’s, or WWII is that now there is a kind of mental disease yet to really have a good name or description.
But here is what it is like: I asked Rebecca to tell me, as poet, what image she would give our times, and she said it was like a person wandering in a desert and only seeing mirages of an oasis and not having real food and water. I think that is a telling image.
What it means emotionally and intellectually is this: It is not just that we have lost the common ground with half of our fellow Americans, which is bad enough, but not unlike the Revolution when only a third of the people were for it, or the Civil War when almost half of the states were leaving. What we have begun to lose is our OWN ground. Not the common ground we need to share, that too can feel lost, but the very ground we need to stand on.
And there is a reason and a name for that. The reason is lies. The name is the banality of evil. And for that we will need a spiritual solution. We here are among the people who can attain that spiritual solution. Never underestimate, Margaret Meade reminds us, the power of what a small group of people can do. In short what the UU tradition calls forth in people is the powerful spiritual we call “Thinking.” Thinking creates our own solid ground. Being surrounded with lies sucks the oxygen out of thinking and suffocates our very sense of self. Mindfulness, reflective self-awareness, pausing in order to know, stepping back in order to see is what will help us regain our ground and maybe save our land. We need a place to step back in order to see the theater before we step forward to act in the play. And that place is our minds.
The mechanics of this are simple, and well laid out by Hannah Arendt whom I have only just begun to understand.
But as a therapist I got it. In marriages the lies are called gaslighting. As a citizen I get it. In politics it’s called propaganda, fake news.
Perhaps the most poignant way to recognize this is to recall our childhood experience of being lied to. Whatever it was it created a serious sense of disorientation. A lie is the total manipulation of a person’s sense of self, what they can trust and how they can safely act. The hell pit of sexual abuse starts in the vestibule of lies. The victim thinks one thing is happening and then it becomes something else. Our child-like response is that we feel complicit. What is wrong with us that we “did” this and so we feel guilty. A total environment of lies offers only one way out, belief in the liar, repeating the lie creates loyalty, gets us close to the giver of the lies, and absolves us of the sickening feeling of guilt and aloneness that comes, barely consciously, when we are lied to. We become ashamed of who we are—oddly enough. And that is then the power the totalitarian propagator has to instigate a mass movement.
I have read most of a remarkable book put together by a woman psychiatrist and minister on the faculty at Yale. It is called “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.” Edited by Dr. Bandy Lee.
It is beyond a doubt in my view that Donald Trump is seriously psychologically damaged, most likely what is called malignant narcissism, which is worse than just narcissism because there is rage and destruction as well as infantile self-absorption.
It is the psychological nature of human beings to need and follow leaders in some way. It is an archetype, a hard wired instinct. There is a place in our consciousness for The King, for The Queen. Every hive has one. And it is very deep. We see in Queen Elizabeth II what 50 plus years of benign Queenliness can do and does do for people in Britain in the English-speaking world, still.
But a truly malignant present is worse for us because not only does the entire “air” of the society become polluted, but the very nature of love and hate, truth and lies becomes corrupted. Trump stirs a great loyal love for him among his followers, and a great hate among them for others, as well as within many of us a hatred for him, having nothing to do with political ideas. Love and hatred are dangerous political forces. But lies are even worse.
Here are the mechanics of it: Blatant, constant lying fully dominates those who are subordinate to the liar. Once a subordinate repeats a lie, and knowingly does that, he or she loses their own sense of reality, they lose what can be called their own “epistemological ground”, they lose their ability to think, and to think for themselves.
People are reduced to their most superficial sense of self. People become shallow, banal. That is what Hannah Arendt saw. She saw it in Adolph Eichmann. She wrote that it was not his decision to be bad or evil that was so dangerous but his extraordinary shallowness. That is what we experience in Donald Trump: his extraordinary shallowness. It is why we keep being amazed and dumbfounded by him, because we just cannot believe that someone could be so shallow, so transparently empty. It is not stupidity, writes Arendt, but a curious and quite authentic inability to think.
And clearly Trump cannot think. He will say whatever will make him feel needed and revered in some way. And what he says will change like a chameleon’s surface colors.
And that makes us complicit in his lying if we stop thinking, and makes us ashamed if we stop acting.
Arendt said we must think and we must act politically in order to be free.
Well, she was not the first.
Lincoln too said we must think and we must act. I will recite the conclusion to his address to Congress a month before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. But the operative sentence is, “we must disenthrall ourselves, as we must think anew, so we must act anew…then we shall save our country….we, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.”
Lincoln knew that the southerners had been lying to each other for a generation. They had gone from a contained view of the temporary necessity of slavery to the Big Lie that slavery was good, and slave societies were best, and that slaves were happy, and that northerners were evil elites.
He called it not lying but sugar coating.
There was an editor in Congress who was to read Lincoln’s speeches. State of the Union type addresses were not personally delivered but read by a congressional reader. The man said, Mr. Lincoln you cannot use the word “sugar coating” in your speech because it is not a “presidential” sounding word, sugar coating. Lincoln acerbically replied that there was not a person in Congress, nor a person in history who would hear or read this speech and NOT know just exactly what “sugar coating” meant, and he meant to be understood, to communicate the addictive falsehoods that were drawing the southerner into evil and into war through his or her own sentimental sweet fictions. The banality of evil.
So what can we do to think anew and to act anew? How do we disenthrall ourselves, and then find a ground, our own ground, on which to stand and a sharable ground on which to act.
We need to reclaim our American story and stories. Stories keep people alive and well in hard times, a story that rings with truth. The Pilgrim Puritans could suffer and brave all sorts of difficulties and hardships in their first decades in the new American colonies because saw themselves as in a story. That’s how they thought about it. The story for them was the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt to the Promised Land, and then the story was their own exodus from religious oppression, enslavement, in England into the New World. They had a Biblical narrative and a sense of the presence of God in their individual and communal lives.
A story gives perspective and strength to thoughts and actions. And stories are communal and full of imagination.
There is an American story that Unitarian Universalists know and can reclaim. Here is how Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “The office of America is to liberate, to abolish kingcraft, priest-craft, caste, monopoly, to pull down the gallows, to burn up the bloody statute-book, to take in the immigrant, to open the doors of the sea and the fields of the earth.”
But there an even larger story that the American story is a part of. That is the Enlightenment idea of equality.
If we are to be talking about some illumination in the present darkness we need to look at the shadow that has been following the light of the Enlightenment for over 500 years. It is time for that shadow to now become light and it is the light of women. The idea of equality has been an evolving value, a growing idea, and its fullness of time is now. All throughout the Middle Ages, women, princesses and court ladies secretly read romantic novels. Why, because they told the story of the value of women. Chivalry developed as a testament to the qualities of the feminine, the value of personal feelings, the sanctity of sex, the end of blood lust and rapine wars. The cult of Notre Dame, our lady, Mary, and all of her cathedral homes.
You can even trace the shadows of the emerging feminine in the biblical narratives. The role of the second son, like Jacob not Esau, is the end of the patriarchal rule of primogenitor. Nothing guaranteed the hierarchy of the male like the value of the first born son. The Biblical myths are largely stories of the feminized second son, the thinker not the hunters. Some scholars even think that one of four main Biblical source traditions, called “J”, was written by a woman, which puts a whole new slant of the five books of Moses. The tribes that left Egypt and entered the Promised Land were not the firstborn sons of those who lived in Palestine, not inheritors but rather interlopers and occupiers at best, they obviously did not inherit it being the Eldest Son.
We can go back further than the Bible into non-patriarchal cultures on Crete. But it makes more sense to us now to see how our own Enlightenment tradition has been a voice, the voice, of women for centuries. Most of the great 19th century English novelists, whether it’s Mary Anne Evans as George Elliot, or Jane Austen, or John Gallsworthy, all are about the enslavement and the liberation of the woman.
I believe that the full equality if not even the ascendency of women and the feminine is the story of our time, and explains why we are in the darkness we are in and how we can move towards the light.
I wrote a book a few years ago about my own personal quest to come to terms with the sacred feminine, it is called Desperately Seeking Mary, and I think that is the name of the game now. Half of us are desperately seeking Mary in some way and the other half are desperately trying to keep Mary in her place.
That is what reproductive rights are all about. That is what Me Too is all about. That is what Christine Blasey Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is all about. It is what Donald Trump is all about. It is what the rise of so-called Strong Men in politics is all about, and it is all about to be over for the so called strong men.
The bully in the playground is about to be over. The school teacher is about to rise. The cyclops is over. Penelope is on the rise.
Slavery was the issue of our last Civil War. When the Supreme Count ruled that the Black Man had no legal status in America, in our Constitution, the Dred Scott Case in 1857, Lincoln’s quiet fire brought him back into politics. When the President now tries to outlaw the legal status of transgender people he is doing nothing less that what the Supreme Court tried to do to black people, legally define them out of existence, and may try to do that to women again.
Women and the plight of the feminine is the slavery issue of our time. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a myth and story of our time. The irrepressible conflict of our time is not the freedom of the black slave but the freedom of the woman, economically, sexually, politically, spiritually.
The liberation of the sacred feminine, in men and women, is the war behind the so called war with the West versus Islam. The extreme of Islam is only another form of male power over women. The defeat of that is a part of our story as globalists, as Americans. The liberation of women was a part of the 1960’s. And then thanks to many like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a sustained revolution. The liberation of woman was fought in the 1850’s from Seneca Falls on. The Enlightenment idea of equality was the center of the American Revolution. So I will close with a version of Thomas Paine. With only one word changed.
“These are the times that try women’s and men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he and she who stands by it now, and she and he who stand by it now, deserve the love and thanks of man and woman.” And Thomas Paine did say man and woman.
He called this Common Sense. He thought about it. It was a thinking man’s response and then an acting response. To think anew. To act anew. That will be our illumination out of this darkness.
So let it be for us.