Love is the Answer
A sermon by the Rev. Connie Yost
I was thinking about this sermon the other day when the movie Zootopia come on the TV. I had seen it before and remembered the dynamic and inspiring main character, bunny police officer Judy Hopps, so I decided to watch it again.
The movie starts with Judy, newly graduated at the top of her class at the police academy, getting assigned to being a parking meter maid while all the other police officers got real police jobs. Since complaining about the injustice of this to her superior, the hardened cape buffalo Chief Bogo, did no good, she decided that she would double the 100 parking tickets per day quota that the Chief gave her, AND do it all by noon. Imagine how surprised Chief Bogo was when Judy came back with her quota doubled at noon that day! Just then, Mrs. Otterton came in begging for information about her missing husband. As Chief Bogo stonewalled, Judy jumped in and volunteered to go find Mr. Otterton. Chief Bogo agreed with the stipulation that Judy had 48 hours to find the missing otter, and if she did not, she would have to resign from the police force.
Judy ends up teaming up with Nick Wilde, a fox she saw hustling while she was giving out parking tickets. A little leery of foxes because of all the warnings she had heard about them while growing up in rural Bunnyburrow, she asks Nick to help her, and when he refuses, she threatens to turn him in for tax evasion as she had recorded him bragging about how much money he makes hustling. And so this unlikely duo eventually tracks down Mr. Otterton and finds other missing animals, who are all locked in cages and have gone back to their feral state as predators.
Now Zootopia was known for being a place where animals had evolved to where predators and prey can live side by side in harmony, so it was a mystery why these animals had gone feral. In a press conference, Judy explains that it could be something to do with their DNA as predators. This unleashes a firestorm in the press, and Nick asks Judy if she is afraid of him, a predator. As he raises his arm, Judy instinctually reaches for her fox repellent. Nick rejects her, and Judy, dejected, goes back to Bunnyburrow.
Meanwhile, in Zootopia, predators and prey have been driven apart, with prey acting fearful against all predators. Gazelle hosts a peaceful protest against discrimination, despite backlash, but savage attacks continue in the city as more predators go primal. One day on the carrot farm in Bunnyburrow, Judy observed her parents doing business with a grey fox. Judy was surprised because her parents had always been prejudiced against foxes, but they explained that Judy had opened their eyes. Just then some young bunnies ran by and Judy’s father warned them to stay away from a certain flower, which the grey fox said they called “night howler’s” because it was toxic and made the animals aggressive. Judy realized that it was the flower that was making the predators aggressive and so she went back to Zootopia and with Nick’s help, eventually found that it was the little sheep, Assistant Mayor Bellwether, who was darting the predator animals with the night howler’s poison. Bellwether explained that fear always works and, with a predisposition to savagery, her plan was that the predators will be forced out of Zootopia leaving only the prey.
Judy says this: “When I was a kid, I thought Zootopia was this perfect place, where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, real life is a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations, we all make mistakes, which means - hey, glass half full! - we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try.”
Well, I loved that movie! Wouldn’t it be great if everything was evolved to the place where there were no predators or prey, just a place where all living beings could evolve into their giftedness unimpeded? Where we could know one another without fear or prejudice? Where we could listen deeply without judgment?
A place, as Rumi says, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
It is a bit easier said than done, am I right?
In theological terms, we call that place the Beloved Community. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. did not coin that phrase, he was the one who made it widely known, and provides us with its rich definition on which to base our social justice activities.
From the King Center website we have this explanation of the Beloved Community:
For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. (Uh--- Zootopia?)
Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.
Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.
Well, so much for Zootopia. Conflict is an inevitable part of human experience. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find the poison dart that is making it so hard for us to achieve the Beloved Community? But we know it is not as easy as that. Instead, we have to be strong and courageous and in it for the long haul. We have to be trained, and we have to find sustenance in order to keep going.
Our work in social justice is important, and as King pointed out over 50 years ago, the evils of poverty, racism and militarism are still with us, more entrenched than ever. And now we must add the evil of climate devastation to the list. The current Poor People’s Campaign seeks to address these intersectional evils through acts of nonviolent resistance and direct actions.
Nonviolence training and acting for justice is important. We need to be out there doing what we can to right these wrongs. We need to band together so that we become that critical mass of people King talked about; people who need not believe alike in order to love alike and act together for justice. I know many of you are working for justice with others in this community. We need each other; we are stronger together. We need to stay in relationship especially when the going gets rough. Our statewide action network, Oregon UU Voices for Justice, is one way for us to come together, support each other, and add our voices to statewide issues.
I want to personally invite each of you to come to the Oregon UU Voices annual meeting which is on Saturday, October 19, in Eugene. This is an important time for us to get to know UUs from across the state who are concerned about social justice, just as you are, and to gather in friendship to share ideas and strategies. I brought some fliers today and they are on the table ….
But there is more training that is needed, more than training in nonviolent actions and becoming knowledgeable about issues, as important as that is.
I want to propose that there more personal, and spiritual, things that must go hand in hand with any quest for justice.
King, of course, had a deep Christian faith with which he grounded his prophetic social justice work. Jesus was a practitioner of nonviolence and his Sermon on the Mount deeply influenced Gandhi who read it each morning and evening for over forty years. Jesus also gives us a model for deep spiritual grounding, as his withdrawals into the desert to pray show us. Jesus was in communication with the divine from which he drew strength, love, guidance and inspiration.
I ask you to find what it is in your UU faith that gives you clarity and strength and guidance not only in your personal life, but in your collective life as part of the UU community and your life as a UU activist. Far from being an “anything goes” or “you can believe anything you want” religion, we need to be reflective of our theological underpinnings. What are the ethical and moral values you hold most dear, and how are those reflected in the UU seven Principles? How is your social justice work tied to your UU faith and your commitment to the values you hold dear? We need to be able to draw on the deep well of our faith to make it through this world, and to do that, we have to have done some deep thinking about what it means to be a UU.
If we really believe we want to achieve the Beloved Community, then we have to be willing to acknowledge that it is not all “out there.” It really has to start with us. We have to take a look at ourselves. Yes, you and me.
Judy Hopps says, “So no matter what type of animal you are; from the biggest elephant to our first fox, I implore you - try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us."
We have to admit that we have been bitten by the poison dart and our thoughts – and sometimes our actions – are often cruel, attacking, judgmental, and harsh.
Richard Rohr says that “The ego seems to find its energy precisely by having something to oppose, fix, or change. When the mind can judge something to be inferior, we feel superior. We must recognize our constant tendency toward negating reality, resisting it, opposing it, and attacking it in our minds. This is the universal addiction.”
Rohr says that “authentic spirituality is always first about yourself—about allowing your own heart and mind to be changed.”
Who am I, and how do I accept all that I am, gifts and faults alike? How do I learn to love myself despite my imperfections? If we cannot look bravely and clearly at ourselves, how is it that we think we can so clearly see the log in someone else’s eye? I propose that acting out of our own self-ignorance is the opposite of nonviolence.
So I want to suggest that you all study and read carefully the poem by Thich Nhat Hahn that was our reading today. I brought copies. “Call me by my true names.” When we can find compassion, which for me is love in action, for ourselves first, then we will be able to find it for others – not to condone evil acts, but to be able to act out of the love that is capable of treating each person with dignity and respect. The kind of love that can even turn the other cheek.
And to have the courage to bravely face all that you are and have done, you need a strong spiritual grounding. Getting clear on what your UU faith stands for and means to you is a start. But we need to have a daily spiritual practice as well. Perhaps you meditate, journal, do spiritual reading, pray. How do you pray and where do you go to pray? For me it is in nature, in gardening, in travelling. A spiritual practice keeps you connected to source, which for me is love, and that is where I draw strength and sustenance for my soul so I can do the hard work of building the Beloved Community.
Last year I had the good fortune to hear author and journalist Eli Saslow talk about his book, Rising Out of Hatred, the story of Derek Black who was raised as a white nationalist in Florida. His father is the founder of Stormfront which was the premier website for white nationalism, and as a young man he was groomed as the rising star of white nationalism. But then he went to New College in Florida and learned some things that challenged what he had been taught at home, which was that race is the defining feature of humanity ... and that people were only happy if they could live in a society that was only this one biologically defined racial group.
Derek started to get to know other students who were of different races – he had been home-schooled – and some were Jewish who started inviting him to their Friday night Shabbat meal, and he went. They offered friendship, and he reciprocated. They didn’t know who he was at first, but then word got out and all sorts of conflict erupted on campus as students tried to figure out how to deal with him.
“There was civil resistance on campus by a group of students who organized the school shutdown, and shut down the school, and sort of cast Derek out, and made it clear to him how awful, and how hateful, and how hurtful this ideology was.
And it was also students like Allison, eventually his girlfriend, who won his trust, built a relationship, but [who] also armored herself with the facts, and sort of like point by point went through and showed how this ideology is built on total misinformation.
And then there were also [Jewish] students like Matthew [Stevenson] and Moshe [Ash] who, in a remarkable act, invited Derek over week after week after week, not to build the case against him but to build their relationship, hoping that just by spending more and more time with them he would be able to begin seeing past the stereotypes to the people and to the humanity. ... I think it's important to note that that did not happen quickly, and that they knew the full horror of a lot of the beliefs of this ideology and the things that Derek had said.”
In the end, Derek publicly rejected white nationalism and lost his relationship to his family for a time, but he stayed in relationship with Allison, whom he eventually married, and the Jewish students who showed what love in action can do.
In the Beloved Community, we believe that love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. But in order to be love in action and build that trust, we have to be in close relationship. We have be committed to staying in relationship, even when we disagree. Judy, a bunny, and Nick, a fox, first learned to trust each other and ended up loving one another.
If love is the answer, what is the question? I leave that to you. What is the question on your heart? Love is what binds us together. It is the only thing that is strong enough to make the kind of change we want.
Copyright 2019 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.