Alternative Ways of Being a Dissident

Ancient Testimony - Psalm 133

July 25, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Today I want to agree emphatically with the biblical text.  How good it is when sisters and brothers dwell together in unity.  How bad it is when sisters and brothers do not dwell together in unity.  Unity: yum, yum.  Disunity: ouch, ouch.  Harmony: wow.  Disharmony: get me out of here.  We want to belong.  We really want to belong—and many of us are still sophomores, hoping for a seat at the right lunchroom table.

We have a homing instinct—and often can’t really find a home.  Even when we get to the popular kids’ table, we wonder what the heaven we are doing there.  We get hurt when we are a part.  And we get hurt when we are not a part.  Our parents may say something out loud that embarrasses us, or our company may do something that is wrong, or our congregation may choose the wrong color for its new signs.  Our country may spend all our money destroying an imagined enemy.  We get so hurt that we set up an arsenal of defensive responses, most of which destroy the very unity we seek.

One of these responses is to be a holier-than-thou dissident.  I think we know who we are.  We know the right answers and the right way to peace, most of the nation does not.  We know the right answers and the right ways to end poverty and achieve environmental integrity.  Most of the nation does not—how can we not dissent?  And our families of origin: weren’t we really adopted?  I always thought I was actually a Native American princess imported into a German immigrant home and that any day, my ancestors would come and fetch me.  I did not belong in a Sears catalogue; I belonged in a tepee.

These very defenses set up the conditions for disunity.  Let’s call it first the the holier- or righter- or wiser-than-thou defense.  Implication: me wise, you stupid.  Me Tarzan, you Jane.  Secondly, let’s call it the hope that we aren’t them—and instead are Native Americans.  Or third, let’s call it what theologian Hal Taussig calls it: exceptionalistic self-protection.  These three defenses—and their friends—set up the conditions for disunity.  People don’t like to be called stupid.  Or to be left out of our affections or respect.  They want us as much as we want them.  When we say that unity is fraught, we mean this interacting set of defenses which goo’s up the works toward unity.

The condition for unity among people, in the small scale and the large scale, is mutual respect, which involves the coy and careful dropping of the defenses.  It is taking the goo out and saying, yes, we want unity.  We want to be a part.  But how can I be a part of a mess?  How can I be a part of Glenn Beck’s assault on the President without protecting myself against its powerful hurt and its obvious stupidity?  How do I fight the assault on the innocent? Or these racist assaults on the President?  How?  By becoming part of their family, but without the protectionist, exceptionalist defenses.  I love Dan Schorr’s line (God rest his soul), when he said if you can fake sincerity, you can make it anywhere.  Unity—fortunately or unfortunately—is a little more authentic.  It is a bit of a melt or meltdown or melt-up, depending on how you see it.  You can’t really fake unity, or at least not for long.  It is too authentic on its own terms.  Unity knows that even your forte can become your fort.

Some dissidents think this kind of vulnerability is just too expensive, even for unity.  Some dissidents think the power route is the route to unity.  We just have to out fight them, out maneuver them, out think them, and out hate them.  I respect this route but don’t think it is good for those of us who might be Christians.  Or think about being Christians.  Or at least have been touched by the story of Jesus, who thinks it is not only marvelous for sisters and brothers to dwell in unity but also possible.  Yes, Jesus believes unity is not only marvelous and possible, but authentically possible.  Jesus sees that your forte need not be a fort.

I believe in another route: the humble route, the small way, the nonviolent way (even though I respect the strategies of power).  The humble route is mutual respect, even of those who don’t deserve it and who haven’t even thought about giving it back. To choose the nonviolent route is not naïve so much as it is different.  It asks whether you really want to have the power to enforce unity—and whether unity is even enforceable.  Is an enforced unity authentic?  I think not.  One of the big questions we can ask of power is this: If you are in charge, am I safe?  We can also ask ourselves that question, if I were in charge, would Glenn Beck be safe?  The Christian answer—strange as it is—is that unity involves security for the likes of him and the likes of me.  How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity, even, and especially, a unity of the powerful and the powerless.

Guide one to being a different kind of dissident is this: we have to watch our attitude.  I have just been in Prague—watching my son’s team come in fifth in the World Cup of Ultimate Frisbee.  It was exhilarating in many ways, but perhaps the best way was falling in love with Prague again.  A friend wrote me in an email that Prague is Paris without attitude.  I loved that.  Dissidents can think of themselves as the very best city in the world as long as they don’t pick up the attitude that goes with it.  We can’t remind ourselves enough of what people sometimes say about New Yorkers—or Judson—and that is that we are very parochial in our sense of personal excellence.  Also, from time to time, arrogant.  I mean, who could really eat those bagels in St. Louis?  Or worship in those churches where they don’t sing show tunes?  Our forte often becomes our fort.

Many of you know that we are deep at work in constructing a new Judson website.  Websites are nothing if not unifying.  I mean, disunifying.  I mean, both.  That, by the way, is the test of the authenticity of unity.  It is not uniformity, it is unity.  We are working on language for ourselves—which has to be harder than a PhD dissertation, especially since we get to do it together rather than in our own cubicle. We have been looking for quotes, things people say about Judson.  One that keeps coming up is that “I wish I could tell my friends that this was really church.”  Well, now, that is an interesting statement.  It is really church.  Do you really think the little Brown Church in the Dell is real church, or more real than we are?  I don’t think so.  Alternative dissidents don’t apologize for themselves so much as appreciate themselves.  Judson is the best kind of little church you’ve never heard of.  And God knows not everybody would be comfortable here with you all.  You are very strange.  I actually think many of you are actually Native Americans, dropped down into whiteness from outer space.  JOKE.

We just had a fascinating experience with two Korean congregations.  One is definitely the kind of church we hope we’re not.  For starters, they are anti-gay and think that the gospel is as well.  They had been renting the Assembly Hall for services on Sunday afternoons.  When another Korean congregation moved in to worship in the Garden Room, also on Sunday afternoons, they abruptly moved out.  One day all their rice cookers were downstairs and they were worshipping in our space, as a tenant, and the next day they were gone.  We don’t know why for sure, because some people don’t always say all the things they mean.  It is at least worth noticing that when the pro-gay “Progressive Korean Church of Greater New York”—a church that calls itself “the least of these”—moved in, the other church moved out.  Almost simultaneously. 

An astute observer would call this sneaky bragging.   It’s amazing how many ways there are to insert virtue into your own self.  We at Judson house people with whom we do not always agree.  We at Judson also make space available to people with whom we do agree.  Either way, the narrative arc here is how good we are.   As long as we don’t develop too much attitude about it, our space use policy is probably stumbling along to something some people would think of as unity.  Still, some people can’t be with other people.  Between some people there is no unity possible, at this point in human history.  Uncle Jerry can’t really be invited to Thanksgiving if Aunt Harriet is coming.  Unity has to alternate years…? 

Judson—as we say on the site—is “a church that’s little bit different.”  We need to say that without putting anybody else down or putting ourselves up too much, otherwise our forte becomes our fort.  Dissidents who don’t get captured by their own dissidence have to watch their attitude.  We can be Prague without attitude but also have to make sure that we don’t spend all our time bragging about that.  The route to unity is humility and mutual respect—not just as words but as words happily married to actions.  When we say that we wish we could tell people that Judson is really a church, we have to dive first.  Spiritually dive.  In that dive we find the genuine humility that allows us to actually be a church.

In the same web-sleuthing for language, some have said that Judson is a place where being queer is boring.  You don’t get points for being queer here.  Now that is also an interesting form of braggadocio and humility.  Why would you need points for being queer?  Only if you had been so hurt by being excluded for so long that you had to lead with your hurt.  Being excluded really hurts.  It really, really hurts.  We want unity desperately.  We want to belong.  We want to sit with the popular kids at the table in the dining hall and not be laughed off it (or watch them get the good jobs for being dull.)

An alternative way of being a dissident is to really want unity, so much that you get over past injuries, enough to not injure others anymore, and especially not to injure the chances for human unity.  I actually hate this argument, because it puts so much onus on the victim.  Unfortunately, nonviolence does that, too.  Early in my ministry when I was the only woman anybody could find in order to make the tables look inclusive, I often had a tremendous urge to spout off.  Usually I did not control it.  I just couldn’t stop hammering away at people for being so stupid as to exclude me and mine.  It did not produce unity.  Nor did it relieve me.  (Nonviolence becomes a great answer once you have exhausted all the others.  Like that wag who said Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing after they have exhausted all the other options.) 

If Judson is a place where self-loathing Christians get over their self-loathing and stop the apologies for the message of Jesus, and a place where queer people get over their injuries, and a place that loves itself but is not arrogant about that self-regard… wow!  We are an alternative kind of dissident, the kind that knows what it is for, as well as what it is against.  We are for unity and its authentic goodness.

Forgive me if I have to add one more thing, another point, not so long as the first.  This second point is a little more wily.  It involves the same humility and respect for how small we are as the first.  But this point is about self-protection.  We need to be secure if we are to be nonviolent.  We need to help each other be secure so that we can be genuinely humble rather than just forced into humility.  When you are forced into humility, you are just put down.   When you choose humility, you lift yourself up.  Self-protection often involves a community where the distortions of the powerful can be understood, even exposed.  Nonviolent love of the powerful does not mean that we agree with them or flatter them.  Sometimes we actually think that both Aunt Harriet and Uncle Jerry should stay home until they can clean up their acts.  One of the best ways to be secure is to love the words “less” and “small” and to always be very careful when you use the word “impact.” 

Another great way to be secure is to learn how to argue.  I heard on the grapevine that while I was gone several of you got into some wing-dingers of arguments over Israel and Palestine.  I said a lot of nice things about the genuine and unremarked security to be queer and nonviolence and humility in the first point.  In this point I want to make sure that we love authentic unity so much that we make each other feel secure enough to fight and differ, and that we know how much we all want to be respected, even if we are wrong about Israel or Palestine, or both.  Or wrong about the holy land in unholy ways.  Or even if we are right about the unholy land in holy ways.  Unity is not uniformity.  Please be careful of anyone in any kind of uniform whatsoever who tells you what they think is capital “R” Right.  In other words, even if we are absolutely right about everything and everybody—about all things, church and state—let us still and nevertheless have a very small impact on unity here.  (Less is not a sneaky form of more.  Less is less.)  It is great when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.  Especially if and as their forte is not a well-defended fortress.

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