Homily, part 2: Anger Management by Ana Levy-Lyons
Dale’s beautiful, raw story of his own anger and despair is a story I’m hearing from many of you in different versions these days. And I’m feeling it myself. As many of you know, this past Tuesday someone carved swastikas and white nationalist slogans into the wooden front doors of our sister church, 4th Universalist in Manhattan. They had recently declared themselves a sanctuary for immigrants and refugees. The hatred is hitting so close to home. In my case, it’s literally close to home. I live four blocks from that church on the upper west side. I also work out in the gym at our local JCC and my kids take a swim class there. There have been two bomb threats this year. A friend of mine is from Surinam. She has lived in the U.S. for 17 years, raised four kids here, paid taxes, but overstayed her visa and so she is illegal. She and her kids are terrified of being deported – probably even more terrified than they need to be because of the climate of panic. And of course, we here at First U had our Black Lives Matter banners stolen repeatedly and vandalized this fall.
As your minister, as a mother, as a friend, and as a person, it all makes me feel angry and scared and I’m guessing you feel something similar. We see all these things and the circles of horror only expand outward: we feel the onslaught of bad to worse news; the surreal daily cocktails of truth, truthiness, and lies; the daily eruption of new controversies, new outrages, new unfairness. Some of us feel these things so deeply that it makes our blood boil. We live with this churning anger and negativity that sometimes feels like it could swallow us whole. It feels overwhelming. It ruins our date nights. We don’t know what to tell our kids. It feels like the whole world has gone mad.
What’s a spiritual response to all this? What are we to do? In addition to continuing to protest and call congress people and organize and stand up for the values of our faith… In addition to all that, I would say, in a word, compassion. First we need the awareness that for some of us, especially minorities, especially people of color, none of this is all that new. They’ve been subjected to hatred and violence for hundreds of years. There is something to the Derrick Bell quote that Dale mentioned about the “permanence” of racism. Racism is not new and it’s not going away any time soon. And that could be said of all forms of injustice. Discrimination against transgender youth certainly didn’t start last week. We, and our ancestors, have found ourselves on all sides of these issues. Some of us own 401Ks that are invested in promoting the causes that we then take to the streets to protest against. It’s more complicated than we’re right and they’re wrong. Nobody’s hands have ever been clean. For some of us in this room the world has never felt safe. We need compassion for those of us who have been fighting this fight because we had no choice for decades.
And then we need compassion for those whom we “other.” Bear in mind that with most of these recent expressions – the swastikas, the bomb threats, the banner vandalism – it’s not even the government doing these things – this is the people. Probably not wealthy people. Probably not privileged people. Probably desperate, angry, but ordinary people. These are people who feel like their world is being taken away from them. And they’ve been falsely led to believe that they can get it back. And we’ve played a role in humiliating and alienating them. You can imagine the rage of someone who feels like we nice, educated liberals care deeply enough about a Muslim from Syria to hide them in our church but don’t give a flying you-know-what about his dad who lost his coal job in Pennsylvania after working hard his whole life and now has nothing. We need compassion for those who feel that the world is leaving them in the dust and who, in some cases, are right.
And we need compassion for ourselves. Because while all this static of pain and rage is happening on one station on our internal radios, on another station children are having birthdays, a grandparent gets sick and has to go to the hospital, a dog throws up on the rug, our friend gets a promotion and needs a celebration, we’re on hold with customer service to fix some bureaucratic problem with a bill, and we’re on our way to work and a tree has fallen onto the subway tracks and there’s no train service for hours. Life goes on. And sometimes, truth be told, it’s a relief to have these ordinary things to do. Doing the laundry suddenly feels indulgent and escapist. It’s okay and, in fact, essential to have other parts of ourselves, other concerns, and even to indulge in a little happiness now and then. It’s okay. To protect ourselves and our families from the toxicity of constant anger is a good thing. Compassion for ourselves.
So, what’s my advice to you? If you’re mad, stay mad, but don’t let it consume you or your life. Allow yourself your outrage, but maintain the long view that Dale advocated and a spiritual perspective that I want to advocate to you this morning. For this work, we need to be at our best and anger seldom leads to our best thinking or acting. So, as I have done in recent past sermons, I want to urge you to begin or continue spiritual practices that ground you, refresh you, inspire you, and cultivate compassion. You owe it to yourself, your families, and to others who depend on you to get and remain healthy in body and spirit. I also want to urge you to be really clear about what our Seven Principles call upon us to do and how they call upon us to be. We hold dearly to the principle that every life has inherent worth and dignity… every life. That includes the Muslim parent turned away at JFK, the Salvadoran fleeing death squads at the border who is deported for jaywalking, and the poor black man turned away at the polls because he doesn’t have a driver’s license. But it also includes the unemployed factory worker in Ohio who is losing his home and the coal miner in Pennsylvania whose dad lost his job.
We need to hold it all – that’s our calling and that’s our mission. It isn’t easy now and it isn’t likely to get easier later. We need to fight through our prejudices, just as we demand that others fight through theirs. We all have work to do on ourselves and on our world. It’s anger management, it’s marshaling our energies, it’s looking hard at ourselves in the mirror. It’s finding humility, knowing that we are complicit in the pain of our world. It’s finding righteous indignation, seeing ever more clearly the contrast between this world and world of love we envision. It’s keeping our anger on just the perfect simmer; just at that perfect Goldilocks spot where we burn but we are not consumed. We keep a sense of ourselves outside of all of it. We need patience and impatience, love and hard resolve, courage and tenderness, but most of all, we need to hold onto each other and to our vision of a just society for everyone… for everyone.