Utopian Interruptions

Sermon by The Rev Dr. Victor H. Carpenter
First Church in Belmont, Unitarian Universalist
February 19, 2012

My favorite segment of the Sunday evening TV show “Sixty Minutes” was the concluding commentary by the late Andy Rooney. Five minutes were all Rooney needed to vent his displeasure about one or another of the small irritations that are part of everyone’s life. And I found his dyspeptic comments very satisfying.

Perhaps it’s because I too have a Rooney-ish pet peeve. My peeve surfaces in Chinese restaurants. After the noodles and the moo goo gai pan the waitstaff produces the obligatory plate of fortune cookies and my peeve surfaces. I believe that fortune cookies should contain fortunes; predictions of tall dark strangers, sudden wealth, unexpected rewards.

When I open my fortune cookie and discover NOT a fortune but an aphorism (usually a tired aphorism about rolling stones or stitches in time) I feel cheated and express my dismay; others at the table roll their eyes and reach for their coats.

Last September the Chinese restaurant in which we were dining followed the fortune cookie ritual. The cookies appeared, were selected, opened and, yes, an aphorism instead of a fortune – but hold the peeve speech! My scrap of paper read: “It is hope and not despair which makes successful revolutions.”

There’s an aphorism you can tip your hat to!

I tucked the slip of paper into my pocket and carried it with me for several days, including on my first visit to the encampment of Occupy Boston at Dewey Square.  What better affirmation of the truth that it is hope and not despair which makes successful revolutions. What did I see at Dewey Square? Ordinary people. Ordinary people, engaged in sustained grassroots protest against the political order and against citizens’ exclusion from the decision making process that governs their lives.

Ordinary people, seeking to re-arrange the distribution of power – and doing so by injecting a creative, often playful vitality that has been missing from our decaying democracy.

On my second visit to Dewey Square I picked up a copy of the “Occupy” newspaper. Page four carried a cartoon depicting three of the characters from Walt Disney’s “Snow White.” There is the wicked queen labeled “Wall St.” The queen is gleefully juggling several apples (“poisoned apples” if you remember the story); the apples represent “the press.” Kneeling over the princess’s body is the handsome prince. His name is “Occupy Boston.” And there is Snow White herself, unconscious, awaiting to be recalled to life by the prince’s kiss. She is named, “the middle class.”

If you didn’t think that the protesters camped in Dewey Square looked like “Prince Charming”, look again. To me they looked like citizens, American citizens who believe that they have the power to change things.

They represent the kind of belief that lies at the very core mystery of American democracy; that humble people – with no particular expertise; with no high degree from a prestigious university – can acquire power – when they convince themselves that they CAN acquire power.

Warmhearted and broadminded these citizens have the audacity to claim that they speak for 99 percent of us (button: “I am the 99%”); and despite the initial ridicule and dismissal by much of the press, polls have shown strong public identification with this statement and support.

Authentic new social movements do not appear very often; and when they do appear most of them fail to go anywhere. Throughout our nation’s history, social rebellions have usually been derailed – either by their own mistakes or by internal divisions as to what course they should take, or by entrenched power that sends out the political equivalent of police with cans of pepper spray.

And when these movements do manage to endure it can take years – even generations to overcome the resistance of the status quo.

Think of the Abolitionists. It took them over 80 years – from the time that slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1780 until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

Last Christmas two different people gave me copies of the same book. Both of those people know me pretty well and knew that both the book’s subject and its author would grab my attention. Neither of the gift-givers knew that I had already purchased a copy of the book to give to our son Tyler.

The book? Its title is simply, “Prophetic Encounters.” The author is Dan McKanan who occupies the UU endowed Emerson chair at the Harvard Divinity School. Dan is not only a scholar of note but an active member of the Medford Unitarian Universalist congregation.

The photographs of six people appear on the book’s dust jacket (two women and four men). I asked my son Tyler how many he could identify. He had no trouble picking out William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglas; he didn’t recognize John Brown (in the photo Brown lacks the wild beard that usually identifies him). The other three: Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement; suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and African American freedom rider, Bayard Rustin – they were either dimly recalled or totally unknown.

Those six people are OUR people. They belong to us – and we belong with them.

Were they saints? Far from it! Were there differences between them? Enormous!

What bound them together? Outrage!  Each one was outraged by the accepted social order and political norms of her and his times and resolved to do what he or she could do to change things.

Theologian Cornel West has a phrase for the changes that radical people produce. He calls them “Utopian Interruptions.” West charges that while the dominant forms of religion are well-adjusted to the “status -quo”; prophetic religion produces “Utopian interruptions” because it allows “suffering to speak.” And when “suffering speaks” it challenges the dominant forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, capitalism

Three weeks ago The Boston Globe published a photo labeled “The Best Photograph of the Year 2011.” It was a photo of the statue of Gandhi (that iconic example of a peoples’ suffering) which had occupied a place of honor at the encampment. It was being moved to prevent damage when the police cleared the square last December. Suddenly a voice cried out, “Gandhi is staying!” Gandhi was carried back! The Globe photographer who took the picture said it reminded him of “protests all over the world.” Utopian interruptions everywhere.

Over the last two decades we’ve heard a lot about racism and sexism and steps taken to address the social suffering that results from their practices. We recognize and applaud our cultural and social advances, small and large, such as devoting a month to black history and the fact that marriage is no longer limited to heterosexual couples. Neither are insignificant steps on the road of social progress.

But Capitalism hurts too; and all over the world the targets of protest to capitalism’s “hurt” are the same – the 1 %. The people whose extravagant levels of consumption define them as a distinct and visible group. These are the people to whom you and I entrust our pensions, our economy and, to a large degree now our political system.

It took the economic earthquake of 2008 with the personal and social hurt that followed when housing prices fell; when middle-aged managers were laid off; when financial nest-eggs disappeared – to bring us to the full realization of what was happening all around us.

And yet until a few months ago, there was hardly a peep of protest out of the 99. As if a numbness had crept over the nation. No one seemed aware that an awful lot of people across this wealthy country were and still are suffering. And that suffering group includes some moderately rich people, and some ordinary middle class professional people; some managerial types and some academics along with people who work in factories, drive trucks, stock shelves, clean houses and mow lawns – like the one belonging to a certain presidential candidate who lived in our Belmont neighborhood. It includes people with disabilities and retirees whose savings drastically shrunk or disappeared altogether.

What started out as a local protest against Wall St. and all that Wall St. represents exploded last fall into a nation-wide phenomenon of local encampments. One esteemed sociologist (Barbara Ehrenreich) claims that Occupy encampments have enlivened over 1000 American cities and produced a growing sense of unity among dispirit people.

We will probably never know the exact numbers of people involved in the “Occupy” movements, but I think it’s safe to say that by being together they have and will continue to identify their common interests and who can say what will be the result.

Last September, inspired by the Arab Spring, word went out to “show up” on Wall St. in New York City on September 16 – and bring a tent.

Those tents were eventually pitched in Zuccotti Park, a public space two blocks from Wall St. and one block from “GROUND ZERO” – the site of the 9/11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center. “Occupy Wall St” began six days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

It’s interesting to reflect that, in the wake of that horrific moment ten years ago, New Yorkers – traditionally identified as the most self-centered people in the world – behaved self-lessly toward each other. They helped total strangers down endless flights of stairs, they gave gallons of blood, they carried, they hauled, they stood on sidewalks and handed glasses of water to the hundreds of people who were trying to walk home because there was no public transportation; they desperately created ways to participate in a new kind of community that arose in that city on that day. And other people recognized their self-less-ness; their striving together in community with each other.

And one of those people who saw and was moved by what he saw was the minister of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church of New York.

So it came to pass that on the following Sunday The Rev. Forest Church ascended his pulpit; gazed at his congregation and said, “I love you.” And with those words Forest gave prophetic utterance to the fact that New Yorkers were undaunted, courageous and caring in the face of the destruction that had been visited upon them.

“I love you!” I suggest that THAT be OUR response to the “Occupy” movement. Love is the fundamental declaration of human hope, and “Occupy” expresses a hope that few of us thought imaginable a few short months ago.

A sign at the Occupy San Francisco site read simply, “It’s time.” Yes, it is. And its been time for a long time.