Sermon: Satyagraha

2018 October 7
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

When Christine Blasey Ford stood before the senate judiciary committee and swore to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” you could have heard a pin drop across this entire nation. People huddled together around laptops in offices and around TV screens in the suburbs. People stopped on the sidewalks staring at their phones. From Allentown, Pennsylvania to Omaha, Nebraska, people were breathless, riveted by the sight of this woman, so dignified and so scared, willingly – almost sacrificially – walking into this gladiator ring; facing a fortress of power, armed with nothing but the truth that she had sworn to tell.


We all know how it unfolded and the bitter, bitter aftermath culminating yesterday. We also know of the two brave activists – Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher – who confronted a senator in the elevator. They would not let the door close on this moment. Here was a member of the ruling party, the ruling class, the ruling race, and the ruling gender. And yet these two women held the power in that elevator. They spoke to him human to human with the authentic authority of truth: “Look at me. Look at me when I’m talking to you.”


This is how empires fall. It is rarely by a superior army coming along with guns blazing and winning the war. It’s rarely so simple. It is more often by people and communities with less power, far less power. As George Washington raps in Hamilton, “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned.” It doesn’t happen quickly, but it happens through the steady revolutions of the practices of the people. It happens through the gradual turning of hearts and minds. It happens through the inexorable flow toward justice and compassion. It happens through what Mahatma Gandhi, the master of nonviolent resistance, called “satyagraha” – truth force. The concept is that the truth has its own spiritual power, stronger than any mortal might, and that if we speak it with integrity and clarity over and over in our families, in our workplaces, in the streets, and in the halls of congress, eventually truth will prevail.


This story, this epic story of the great being felled by the small, is part of our human heritage. It is woven into our history. It’s the story of Gandhi and his movement of the poor and the disenfranchised winning independence from Great Britain. It’s the story of the civil rights movement in this country, tragically unfinished as it is, bringing legal rights to a people who had none. This story is also the heart of religious traditions. It’s the story of Jesus being crucified by the mighty Roman empire and resurrecting to continue to shine his light on the earth. It’s the story of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, escaping to freedom through the parting of the Red Sea. And it’s the story of David and Goliath.


Like the players in the senate hearing and the players in the elevator, David and Goliath are metonymies – they stand for something larger than themselves. Each represents the entire ethic and force of a culture, an entire civilization. And at stake is whose world will be ascendant. It will be one way of looking at life or another, one relationship to God or another, one understanding of what it means to be human or another. The moment is dense with meaning and the whole world is holding its breath watching. How will this end? Orson Welles once pointed out that “whether a story has a happy ending depends on where you stop it.”


From the outset the Philistine Goliath looks undefeatable. He is a champion warrior. He is huge: 7 feet tall. He has a bronze helmet with full-body armor that weighs 80 pounds. He carries a bronze javelin and the full text goes into great detail about the shaft of his spear and the weight of the iron head of his spear. He taunts his enemies – sound familiar? There is no doubt that he represents a culture of brute masculine power and military might.


The Israelites are terrified to fight him. Rumor has it, fighting him rarely goes well. And then, as we heard, a youth – a musician – named David volunteers to try. David is a shepherd, skilled, not in the arts of war, but in the arts of nurturing his flock. Why did he volunteer? Call it civic duty, call it a quest for glory, call it religious fervor to show the world what his God can do. David has faith. But David also has something else – he has satyagraha. He trusts in the power of his truth. He has a different way of moving through the world. He operates on a different plane and he plays a different game from Goliath. Author Marianne Williamson writes, “What looks like David’s lack of preparation for taking on the force of evil turned out to be simply a different kind of preparation – a preparation of the spirit.” David knows that while the logic of battle tells us that the bigger man with the bigger spear will win, it’s not necessarily so.


Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath, details how, in fact, it’s not the extreme rarity that the underdog wins, but it’s actually common. He explains how the underdog has spent a lifetime learning how to handle those with greater power; the underdog has learned by necessity how to turn their own disadvantages into advantages. They’ve learned how to not accept the rules of the game as dictated by their opponent. Gladwell gives example after example – the weird number of presidents of the United States with dyslexia, a basketball team of short girls who become wildly successful. They all find ways to compensate and work around. In David’s case, he had learned ways to protect his flock against fierce animals. He explains to the skeptical King Saul, who is stuck back in the mindset of military force, “Your servant has killed both lion and bear and that uncircumcised Philistine shall end up like one of them.”


Women have been the underdogs in this country from the beginning. We’ve been forced to learn how to compensate and work around, having less power, less voice, less authority. Self-preservation has dictated when we could speak out about violence and when we had to stay silent. We’ve become wise to the jungle in which we live. We’ve had to deal with the lions of the workplace and the bears of the media and struggle to protect ourselves and our flocks against them. By necessity, we have become students of the systems of power in our culture. Ford, Archila, and Gallagher, like every woman, knows Goliath well. They know – like David knows in the story – that while Goliath is big, he is slow, he is encumbered by his armor and his need to protect himself. And in the story, he needs to be led out onto the battlefield by an attendant because he has poor eyesight.


Saul offers David thick armor to wear, assuming he’s playing the same war game as everybody else. David tries it on and then immediately takes it off, saying, “I can’t walk in this.” He realizes that such armor would make him heavy and slow and obstruct his vision. He needs to stay true to himself, stay nimble, and trust the gifts that God has given him. We know how the story unfolds from here. David goes without armor and takes five smooth stones from the riverbed and puts them in his sling. He approaches Goliath. Goliath does some macho trash-talking and David responds, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of God.” David comes with satyagraha – truth force. He swings and his aim is true. He sinks a stone into the forehead of Goliath. He sinks a stone into Goliath’s third eye – the place of insight and consciousness — the one place where Goliath is unarmored.


Dr. Christine Blasey Ford sank a stone of truth into the mind of America. Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher did the same. These moments are indelible from our brow. Did they prompt rage? Yes. Did they prompt backlash? Yes. Did they fell the giant? Not this time. But here’s the thing: In the story, Goliath had poor eyesight. The Goliaths of our day have poor vision. They cannot see the world we are moving into. They are afraid to look and they arm themselves against it. They are heavy and slow – they cannot move with the times. They are philistines – hostile to culture and the arts because they are terrified of the truths art conveys. They rave and they fume when their power is threatened. Because they know deep down that their world is in its death throes.


No matter how much the Goliaths of our world try to resist, try to slow and scare and intimidate; no matter how they might try to protect themselves with pounds of armor and attack with javelins of steel and spears of mockery, eventually the truth will sink in. Eventually it will penetrate their conscience and elevate their consciousness. That is the nature of satyagraha, wielded with integrity and faith.


We all have this place where we are unarmored – our third eye where our conscience is exposed. If we look beneath the labels of Democrat and Republican, man and woman, we are all human and we each love somebody or something on this earth. We each have a soft core of holiness and a child within who wants to be loved. In reality, truth is complex. The good guys and bad guys are not so neatly divided like they are in the David and Goliath story, lined up on two separate hillsides. We live side by side on the same streets and in the same homes. In fact, most of us have parts of both David and Goliath within us. But today, the Davids within us and among us are ready to speak their truth, while the Goliaths are covering their ears. That truth is deafening.


This is a movement of the people. Ford, Archila, and Gallagher were not alone like David on the battlefield. They were building on the bravery of generations of women and men, some in this very room, who have come out facing danger unarmed except for our stones of truth. We are part of an upwelling of satyagraha in this nation right now. Millions of people are beginning to speak our truths, despite the pain it entails, to build a more compassionate future. We are laying the groundwork together for a world beyond the hierarchies, beyond the ethic of brute force winners and losers. We are working to end the ranking of human beings based on gender and race and wealth. While defeats are painful, enraging, and humiliating, we are getting closer every time.


Remember that David had five smooth stones in his shepherd’s bag. The first one may not do it and, in fact, the fifth one may not do it and the five-hundredth may not do it.

But that world is coming. When we are clean in our own intentions, when we rise up from a place of love, spiritual growth, and a commitment to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help us God, we generate a force that is unstoppable.


So as we head into this next chapter of the saga, may we choose our smooth stones wisely and lovingly. When we swing, may our aim be true. May we remember that we are – all of us – beings of worth and dignity, made in the divine image. May we nurture each other, comfort and support each other, believe and believe in each other. May we learn from every instance where we’ve spoken out and the door was again barred that it is never the end of the road. Whether the story has a happy ending depends on where you stop it. We are still in the midst of this story.


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