Friday, March 25, 2011

Sermon - "Satryagraha: Soulforce"

"Satyagraha: Soulforce"

The great thing about having a whole month to talk about one theme, is that we can dig into the topic more deeply. We often dig in so deep that I find myself presenting a different perspectives from one week to the next. Just two weeks about I said that suffering doesn’t lead to redemption. Suffering, especially through violence cannot possibly pay for the sins of the world in some cosmic balancing act. Redemption doesn’t work that way.

Well, today I want to talk about a kind of suffering and sacrifice that can earn redemption. In theological terms, we call it voluntary redemptive suffering. That’s the very formal way of describing the type of civil disobedience that we are all aware of. It was the tool of Gandhi, King, Nelson Mandela and others. It’s making oneself vulnerable to suffering in an effort to draw attention and compassion to a social evil. We voluntarily sacrifice our own well being so that the community might redeem itself and correct its ways.

Voluntary redemptive suffering does NOT mean that we accept senseless suffering that serves no purpose. Suffering inflicted on those who have not volunteered to receive it is certainly not what we are talking about. The redemption that we are talking about today is a call to suffer voluntarily, so that involuntary suffering might end.
As I said, we’re all familiar with this sort of activism. Nelson Mandela watched his people suffer involuntarily from the cruelties of apartheid. But he decided that his suffering would count. He didn't suffer apartheid in silence. He didn't join anti-apartheid bands who tortured and maimed their enemies (black and white alike). He took a public stand against the unjust laws, knowing the consequences. He was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. That kind of voluntary, redemptive suffering moved minds and hearts across the world. The people who saw black Africans as immoral, promiscuous, less than human, learned the TRUTH in Mandela's acts of courage.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. watched his people suffer involuntarily from the cruelties of segregation. King refused to suffer in silence. He didn't agree with those who called for overthrowing segregation violently. King took a public stand against the unjust laws by breaking them. When he was arrested, he paid the consequences willingly and people noticed.

When the children of Birmingham marched against segregation, the nation saw them on the evening news being beaten by police, knocked down by fire hoses, and attacked by snarling dogs. For decades they had suffered segregation involuntarily and few seemed to notice let alone to care. But when those children finally took their stand, when they volunteered to suffer for the cause, the President, the Congress and the courts finally took notice.

And lets not forget Gandhi. Instead of paying a few pennies in salt tax to the British, Gandhi walked 240 miles to the sea to make salt. Before he could lead the march to the British salt works, he was arrested and the protestors who took his place were beaten, harassed and abused with the world looking on in shock and horror. The Indians who followed Gandhi on the journey to nonviolence suffered willingly. And people around the world saw their suffering and demanded that they be set free.

Gandhi showed the world that when we take a voluntary stand against injustice, we don't know how the adversaries will react. However they respond, the goal is to take on the suffering without complaint or retaliation so that the adversaries will see the courage and witness the commitment to create change.

You may have noticed I have used the word “adversary” a few times today. “Adversary” is a word used intentionally, in place of enemy. One of the key aspects of Satyagraha or Soulforce is the belief in the inherent dignity and goodness of every person, even those who act unjustly. Adversaries are not evil or hateful or insane. They are "Victims of Untruth" as we have all been at one time or another.

Now that is a big, big, big challenge, to see the person who inflicts injustice and harm, not as an enemy but as an adversary. I can’t stress enough how difficult that is. But it is an essential piece of the sort of redemption that we are talking about today. Non-violence is not just a social justice tactic, it is a way of being in one’s heart. This sort of personal non-violence and ability to see an adversary as a victim of misinformation is the cornerstone of what Gandhi understood as Satyagraha, or soulforce.

In his own words, Gandhi said, “In the application of satyagraha, I discovered … that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent, but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.” (Gandhi, M.K. Statement to Disorders Inquiry Committee January 5, 1920 satyagrahi valvuloplasty (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 19, p. 206)

Satyagraga, truth-force, or soul-force, is a non-violence commitment to use non-violent means to demonstrate the truth so that both the oppressed and their adversaries might be freed.

That’s how we get voluntary redemptive suffering. Rather than inflicting force or suffering on our adversary, we approach them with patience and kindness, and inflict that suffering on ourselves instead.

You see the peace that we read about earlier in our responsive reading is a much deeper phenomenon than stopping military violence. Of course that is a tremendously important goal that each of these leaders sought. But, the peace that Gandhi spoke of was not simply a goal. It is a method, a strategy. The first step to creating lasting meaningful change in the world is cultivating non-violence within ourselves. Adversaries are not evil or hateful or insane. They are "victims of untruth" as we have all been at one time or another. Understanding that alone is a journey that can take a lifetime.

We all know the story of the amazing woman Rosa Parks. There are two versions of her story. They are both sort of inspiring, but one is the truth. The first story is that one day after years of giving up her seat to white people on the bus, Rosa Parks was tired. She had had enough. She said I’m not going to take it anymore and refused to move. That solitary act of courage and defiance sparked the Montgomery Buss Boycott, a major step in the civil rights movement. That’s one version of her story, the version that many of you are probably familiar with.

The other story is a little more complicated. Now several action’s like Ms. Parks’ had been taken in the past, but none of them had the sort of traction that civil-rights leaders had hoped for. They needed just the right person, someone with a perfectly clean record, a respected leader of the community who could withstand the public attention and legal entanglement. They found one. This is the story about Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist. At the time of her on that bus, Rosa Parks was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and she had recently attended the Highlander Folk School. That’s a social justice center in Tennessee that trained people to strategize for workers rights and racial equaility.

I think it’s critically important to tell this second story, this true story about who Rosa Parks really was. She was a woman plugged into a movement. She had had extensive training in non-violence. She knew that her adversaries were not malicious or crazy or evil. They were people, who were victims of untruth. She made it her mission to expose the truth to them, and to the whole world. Rosa Parks was not simply a tired commuter. She knew the consequences of her actions. And she willingly offered herself to be arrested and suffer the consequences. She offered herself to suffer, so that her adversaries might better understand the sickness of segregation.

In all this talk about justice leaders, it is important to point out that no one needs to be a saint to make a difference. In fact it is probably better if you are not. Every time I sing Gandhi’s praises, I am reminded of some of the personal lifestyle experiments he undertook. He nearly starved himself to death on repeated occasions, not for political purposes, but simply to see what his body could endure. He tried very hard to fully squelch any sexual urges that he had. He had an almost obsession with control over his own body.
I don’t aim to detract from Gandhi’s insights and leadership. But it is important that we recognize that he too was human. He was in many ways a very quirky person and his ascetic pursuits are quite contradictory to the celebration of life that Unitarian Universalists tend to embrace.

I’m not asking anyone to be an ascetic or a saint. I simply ask that we explore how non-violence, Satyagraha, soulforce, might inform our own action in the world.

Action and personal sacrifice happens in a variety of ways. In fact each one of you probably does a variety of different things to make the world a better place. Some of you give your resources of time and money to causes that you care about. Others of you commit to cultivating inner peace that will radiate to the wider world. I know many people make personal sacrifices large and small to help save our fragile and struggling environment. What do you do? I want you to just think of one or two things that you do, large or small. What do you do?

And now remember with me, the parable that I told in intergenerational time. Remember the heroine who saved the drowning people. First she dive in her self to save those in need. Then she recruited others to help with the cause. Finally she went to the source of the problem and asked that community to stop throwing people in the river. Then, right in front of them, she dove right back in to continue the struggle. She did it boldly in front of her adversaries. A critical part of voluntary redemptive suffering is that it needs to be witnessed to have its full affect. That’s right, it’s not just about jumping into the freezing cold water to save a drowning child. It’s about doing it with witnesses, so that they can see your willingness to sacrifice. They can see how much you care about saving that life.

We Unitarian Universalists talk a lot about taking action to make our world a better place. And we do a lot. The thing that we’re not so good about is sharing what we do with the wider world. You would be shocked to hear how reluctant people are to be chalice lighters on Sunday mornings. Some of them we practically have to beg for the permission to share with you the great work they have done for the world. That’s a big part of why we do have a chalice lighter every Sunday. It’s a moment to pry open the modesty in our culture, an opportunity to say wow, look what they did. Isn’t that awesome. Isn’t that inspiring.

It’s not such a bad thing to share with the world what you do. Part of the commitment toward good is a willingness to be an inspiration for others. As a wise man once said, no one lights a lamp and hides it’s light under a bushel.

I want you to think of that one or two things that you do to make the world a better place that I asked you about earlier. I want you to tell someone about that during the social hour after church. Now if I know you as I think I do, no one is going to jump out and say it. So I beg you to ask each other. Ask someone what sacrifice they made voluntarily to make our world a better place.

We’re not looking for saints here. Anyone can shine a light on the truth. It doesn’t have to be a giant flood light, just a spark will do. A spark can start a great fire.


Giving credit where it is due, much of my understanding of Soulforce and much of the actual material from this sermon comes from the organization by that name. Soulforce is an organization that puts to work the principles of non-violence to work for the full inclusion of GLBT people in religious institutions across the country. While their work is specific to one type of oppression, the principles they draw on are universal.

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