Pi, Christian or Marxist: On Vilifying Villains

January 20, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

So how bad does it have to get before things change? Do you have to have a heart attack to stop smoking or an atrocious rape to stop rape or a Newtown to stop guns or a Katrina and a Sandy to stop global warming? Do you have to bottom out before you stop drinking? Do you have to leave your husband to find him? In other words can things improve if we don’t face how bad they are already? This is the question for this second sermon in the our first and second natures series. Don’t worry. You won’t get an answer. That is above my pay grade. But you will hear a round about way to at least understand the question.

A friend told me the story of her friend’s father’s funeral, which didn’t quite go the way it was supposed to. When the sound director at the funeral home put on the last song, which was supposed to be that old familiar from Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way,” something different rang through the home. Instead of the softly heroic individualism of Frank’s croon – I did it my way – “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” by Elvis came on. The funeral director turned chartreuse, the chief mourner turned purple, the gathered grievers experienced their own demeanors as moving from horror back to shock into panic, into amusement. As the funeral director watched the crowd shift mood, he let the song continue. “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time,” ended the observation of the man’s life, and the crowd’s amusement turned to open laughter. Finally, someone had said something truthful about his or her beloved and the truth set the mourners free. My friend said that her friend led the joy And thus the mistake uncovered the truth. He wasn’t much more than a hound dog and he did cry all the time.

I’d rather have a better song at my funeral, wouldn’t you? I am sick of whining about the environment and about each other. Aren’t you? Let’s see how we get beyond the whining. We are in the middle of this series on the environment and we are ready to really look at the question of what happens as the old ways die. How shall the funeral be observed? Frank’s song – we did it our way – would be a fitting conclusion to this stage in earth’s development. I might rewrite it and say we did it the masculine or man’s way but that would just be catty. At any of our funerals, we could have Elvis’s lament posture and have it be known that we were just hound dogs and cried all the time. Or we could do something different. I am going to head towards something different. The question on our region’s plate is the same that New Orleans faced earlier in this decade: shall we rebuild better or shall we rebuild different? Shall we change before our funerals or shall we just cry all the time?

On another front, I have been surprised at how many of you want me to preach about the Life of Pi. Maybe it is that so many of us feel like we are living in a lifeboat, with dangerous animals ever so nearby. In the book Life of Pi, 211 of 354 pages devoted to his life in a lifeboat. That is a good chunk of his life. Or maybe the identification attends to the fact that this book was rejected by five houses, only to go on to win the Booker prize and become a movie. Many of us feel like we have offered gifts to the universe, only to experience humiliating rejection. We know we are doing good work but we don’t have a megaphone for it. Or maybe the identification comes from our sense that, even if we do accomplish something with strength, we will end up facing the authorities, as Pi does, even after we have managed the heroism of the dishes, the sheets, the arrangements, we will be face to face with the authorities and have to trick them into our freedom, again. Surely many of us would like a strong and challenging companion and like to finish out our days with Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger, at our side. “May Richard Parker always be at your side, “ as one wag put it.

Our text today tells us the knee and the shoulder are connected. It refers to a certain interesting difference in the body. It suggests that we also pay attention to the lesser parts of our bodies, those that are often hidden. I am going to interpret this to mean today that we attend the differences in our genders, those parts of our bodies that mark us off as male or female. Why? Because I am pretty sure that to rebuild differently, we have to lead with women, not men. Men have been in charge long enough and they prove to be hound dogs, crying all the time while using up the earth’s diminishing resources. Of course there are magnificent exceptions, like Pi and Richard Parker who manage their lifeboat with strong mutual nurturing. Or many of you in this meeting room. Or many great male environmentalists, like Bill McKibben, who is telling us that we need to play offense, not defense, regarding the environment. When McKibben talks about playing offense, he means playing differently. Playing a different game differently. I am not going to argue a simplistic shift in gender but a complex one, which says that the biggest difference we could do in rebuilding would be to manage it like women or as women would.

I will say more about what this means but first let’s reacquaint ourselves with the mess on our lifeboat. Here in New York City, we have three possible futures ahead of us. We are not going to cry about them so much as name them. I thank Anne Matthew’s article, “The Future of New York” for them. Future one: dystopian battleground of civic chaos and decay, a debilitating entropy marked by worn out infrastructure, vast squatter settlements, fraying public and social services and battered ecosystems. A coastal megacity profoundly affected by global warming. In this baked apple, there is more ozone, more smog, power shortages, more asthma and more heat deaths. In this New York summers begin in April and last through October. This ain’t nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. Future Two is a milder edition of this dystopia: a deindustrializing, formless city, still hoping for ingenious retrofitting and rededicated fossil fuels. Future 3 is decidedly different: it is a sustainable spirit of urban ecology with in fill green initiatives, increased density, light rail, solar and wind energies, population management and serious facing of the authorities of oil and fracking and heat. You know the end of the story of Pi? He is faced with the authorities and has to ask them which story about him they prefer to tell. More crying, this time just more clever. The latter version of our future is possible but only with serious change in who is in charge and how they use power.

Such middling initiatives already exist. We have seen them in farm to table school lunch programs in Washington, D.C., in London style congestion fees, in Paris’ new investment in city trees, Salt Lake’s encouragement of reflective roofing to cool the urban heat island, Chicago roof top gardens, Detroit’s reclamation of old buildings or even the dimming of high rise lights during peak bird migrations as Toronto and Chicago have already done, Mayor Bloomberg’s aggressive bicycle lanes. Kindness to the tigers – and the birds – actually does exist but only in partial pictures, not in power shifts yet. In option three, we face the question of which New York we want to restore? Do we want the old one back or do we want a different one to emerge?

Permit me one more visit to India. I find myself unable to forget the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey which began in India on December 28, 2012, less than a month ago. At an otherwise civilized dinner party, I began arguing that I wanted to see consequences for the people who did it. I thought death was too kind for them and that actually some longer form of torture and trouble would be better. It would show that women aren’t putting up with rape any more. It would use mean power, hard power, the kind that you can’t forget. Now I know a lot about rape, I have been raped, as have many in this meeting room today. I have also spent long hours training police and emergency room personnel how to “handle” rape. I realize that I have a very violent streak here, that I want not just to rebuild differently but also to punish the people who won’t. I appear to not have a good enough bulletproof vest, even though I thought I did. In this rape, which broke through for many people to another kind of consciousness, there is an example of trouble brewing into change. Like the Newtown catastrophe, there are awful things that happen that change things, like Newtown may yet change the gun laws or Jyoti’s rape may change our consciousness about rape. But let’s go deeper now, back to my opening set of questions.
Does it take an awful tragedy to make change? Must you have a heart attack to stop smoking? Apparently it does.

Primo Levi is the best writer I know on the Holocaust. He says that he can’t get over the way people did get over the Holocaust. He also reminds us of the way the Germans charged the Jews a full fare to travel to Auschwitz on the train to their own murder. Children were half price. I wonder what it is in us that allows us to get over Auschwitz or Newtown or Rape in India. How much more innocence in children, in women, in men can we afford to lose? How numb will we have to be to get to a good future for the planet? Or will we have to go another direction?

Obviously I think we have to go deep into the tragedy, deep enough to move through our desire for revenge on Daddy, the hound dog, or Spectra and the pipeline. We will have to know that we been done wrong. We will have to say that we are hound dogs. Nothing but hound dogs. We will have to find a way to fight back better and different. We will have to stop crying and start connecting.

I think there are a lot of people who are fierce and furious. What I don’t know is whether there are enough of us who are fierce and furious and constructive in our fury. My desire to punish the men who threw her off the bus after they raped her is understandable, I think, maybe even a good idea. But it can’t be the last idea. It can only be an intermediate one. The last idea is to see how the lesser parts of the body are connected to the stronger ones, how knee and shoulder relate, how we were created for something larger than anger and regret. How punishment to the hound dog doesn’t really stop the hound dog so much as acknowledging him. Pi had to notice Richard Parker before they could actually relate, in the different kinds of power they had over each other. Dr. King talks about the uncashed check, the debt still owed. He is right. The money is there in the bank. We just have to release it. Energy workers talk about the unblocking of the Chi, the essential energy that holds those bodies’s together foot to arm, back to knee, shoulder-to-shoulder, penis to vagina.

I think about all the initiatives that abound in and around New York, about how so many people move beyond option one of decay and chaos and constructively and imaginatively create organizations. I marvel at what Sara Horowitz is doing with the Freelancer’s Union, how she got 3.4 million dollars from the health care reform act to develop models for health insurance for freelancers. No crying allowed. Or how new nursing homes are springing up all over the country, places that use whatever physical assets the patients still have to contribute to the life of the home. You can still peel potatoes but you have to wear a diaper? Good, let’s give you a potato peeler. I think of Avaaz, the Arab Word for Breath, the Global Move on Network that has 300,000 members and follows energy around the globe and fans it and wakes it up. Or Clay Christiansen teaching companies how to build green roofs and how to stay innovative and not just innovate once. Maybe physical strength and moral strength are already profoundly connected. You see when you have physical strength you use it. When you don’t, you have to come up with other strengths. That’s why I say lead with women or as women, lead without physical strength or gasoline or power grids for a while. Lead without vilifying the villains. Lead smart. Lead with soft power, high touch power, the kind Hillary Clinton names all the time, as what she has heard from women around the world. The only real difference between men and women is that finally men are stronger and can beat women up. When you really can’t do that, you have to find another way. Another future. Another direction. Another kind of power. We need another kind of power than that from fossil fuels because that kind of power is exhausted, spiritually and materially, in Christian terms and in Marxist terms. Another kind of power will stop us from crying all the time. It is the last hope we have before finding out how bad it can get before things change and we change.

Reconsider that mistake, the truthful one, that happened at the funeral. Let’s imitate it by consciously saying we know how bad it is in the Baked Apple, how far along an absurd masculinity has taken us down ridiculous roads that hurt us, all, not just one part or the other but us all. Let’s imagine revenge as a possibility. It is. And then let’s figure out another kind of power, one that is weaker to be stronger. Amen

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