Finding the Light Within the Darkness

Excerpts from Sunday morning service June 3, 2018 – UU Church of Greater Lansing

Participants: Rabbi Michael Zimmerman, Cheryl Goodman, Aspen Bernath-Plaisted, Melany Mack

Call to worship - from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
…. “To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”
[UU Lansing does not have copyright permission to reproduce the entire reading, but you can consult these websites for interviews and excerpts related to the work of Rebecca Solnit.]

Lighting the Chalice – by Aspen Bernath-Plaisted
You might ask me, “What reason do you find to hope?”  I would have to reply: There is a course steadier than ours – call it what you like. Where there is no beginning and there is no end and transformation is eternal. And where hope is always born anew. Living without hope most certainly will bear no fruit and why would one decline to flower? Because all of nature perseveres and reaches for what might be, and so must I, for to hope is no different than to breathe.

by Rabbi Michael Zimmerman, Kehillat Israel and The Network of Spiritual Progressives

For seven weeks leading up to the Jewish High Holidays, we recite Psalm 27, which concludes with the verse KAVEH ET ADONAI CHAZAK V’YA’AMETZ LIBECHA V’KAVEH ET ADONAI:  have hope in the source of love and justice, be strong in body and let your heart be strong, and have hope in the source of love and justice.

Hope is different from optimism. In the story I told before, Hem was optimistic that someone outside the maze will deposit more cheese in cheese station C. The optimist believes everything will turn out all right, so he might as well sit back and wait for the goodies to fall from the sky. By contrast, Haw had hope. There was no guarantee that there was any cheese anywhere in the maze, but if there was, he would find it because he was ready to commit his full energy to make it happen.

Last week Tikkun Magazine circulated an article that for me typifies the difference between hope and optimism. Visionary thinker Charles Eisenstein wrote this piece in response to recently published articles by Stephen Pinker and Nicholas Kristof that used recent statistics to demonstrate the successes of our contemporary globalized capitalist society:  reduced poverty, less violence, longer life expectancy, higher literacy, etc. etc. Pinker and Kristof express the optimism that our society is on the right course. Things are good and will only keep getting better. Eisenstein, by contrast, challenged these claims one by one:  the poverty figures do not consider the groundswell of impoverished persons in the global south abandoning their villages where a sustainable barter economy had existed for centuries to live in squalid cities where their new income is painfully inadequate to meet their needs. The longevity statistics ignore the rising levels of depression, obesity, and addiction, not to mention the enormous costs for adequate medical care. Literacy has increased in part by sending tens of millions of children to sit in classrooms rather than learn the basic agricultural skills needed for survival in their villages.

Eisenstein may come across as a pessimist, but in fact his article is filled with hope. He agrees with Pinker and Kristof QUOTE that humanity is walking a positive evolutionary path. For this evolution to proceed, however, it is necessary that we acknowledge and integrate the horror, the suffering, and the loss that the triumphalist narrative of civilizational progress skips over. ENDQUOTE Where Eisenstein finds hope is not in the steady march of material progress, but in the emergence of empathy in response to the violence, environmental degradation, and inhumanity of the contemporary world. He writes:

To be sure, there is no shortage of human rights abuses, death squads, torture, domestic violence, military violence, and violent crime still in the world today. To observe, in the midst of it, a rising tide of compassion is not a whitewash of the ugliness, but a call for fuller participation in a movement. On the personal level, it is a movement of kindness, compassion, empathy, taking ownership of one’s judgements and projections, and – not contradictorily – of bravely speaking uncomfortable truths, exposing what was hidden, bringing violence and injustice to light, telling the stories that need to be heard. Together, these two threads of compassion and truth might weave a politics in which we call out the iniquity without judging the perpetrator, but instead seek to understand and change the circumstances of the perpetration.

The recognition of the possibility, however remote, that empathy and truth could prevail over greed and cruelty, and the commitment to work to bring this to reality, is what hope is all about. This hope is truly the light in the darkness. This paradigm in theory is the vision of the Network of Spiritual Progressives in practice.

I joined the Network of Spiritual Progressives because I am not an optimist. After the last presidential election, it was clear that things in this country have gone dangerously wrong, and that they would only get worse if people didn’t work to change the course. That night in November 2016 was shocking for many of us; for me it was one of the darkest and loneliest nights of my life. Our daughter had moved out, my wife was out of the country, and our internet had broken down so I couldn’t even chat with my 1237 so-called friends on Facebook. Even the cat had gone to the cat-sitter. There was only the old-fashioned radio churning out horrendous statistics the whole sleepless night. So even though the trauma of that fateful night was shared by millions around the globe, I took it all in alone.

For the next couple of weeks I learned about protest movements, resistance movements, almost as many ways to fight back against the new administration as there were immoral initiatives and outrageous proclamations spewing out of the oval office for the past 1-1/2 years. But only one proposal offered any viable suggestions for changing the consciousness that drew people to our new president in the first place. Recognizing this, I felt I had no choice but to establish a local chapter of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. This for me was truly the light that emerged from the darkness.

Why NSP? Because this organization was founded specifically to counteract the very trends that led to what I call Trumpism: the failure of progressive forces to recognize the needs of ordinary citizens for respect, meaning, community, and faith; the success of conservative movements in playing into those needs, scapegoating liberals and minorities, and skillfully tweaking language to sell an agenda to voters even though it went against their own self-interest; and the resulting agenda of bigotry, selfishness, and ignorance. Michael Lerner has studied this phenomenon for the past 30-40 years, has written extensively on how it operates and how it can be changed, and then founded the Network of Spiritual Progressives to put the vision into practice.

Our work is to make massive changes in society through tiny conversations. Our primary goal is to create a New Bottom Line for society: one that values people over profits and determines worth through an enterprise’s level of caring, commitment to justice, respect for the environment, and capacity to foster humility and awe at the wonders of our world. We are advocating a Global Marshal Plan, through which the affluent nations would contribute a small percentage of their gross domestic product to eliminate global poverty, as well as an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the constitution, requiring large corporations to demonstrate their worth to the well-being of humanity and their stewardship of the planet.

Big goals through tiny conversations. Talking one-to-one to Trump voters, to progressive activists, and to people on the street about the New Bottom Line. It’s this simple:  Please raise your hand if you would rather see a society built around caring and justice to one built around greed and profit? As you see, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to sell the New Bottom Line.

But of course, at this point the question inevitably arises: Well Michael, the idea is all fine and good, but is it realistic?

And that’s where people inevitably get stuck. Like Haw in the cheese story. It wasn’t at all realistic for him to keep searching for cheese that may not even be there. And yet, if he didn’t have hope, he could not have persevered and would never have found the cheese that was sitting there waiting for him to find it. And that’s the problem with being realistic: If you insist on keeping your feet on the ground, you will never learn to fly.

We can learn from countless examples in history that it is the hope-mongers, not the realists, who lead the world in the right direction. William Wilberforce served in the British House of Parliament for half a century; the bill to abolish slavery that he championed was approved one day before he died. Emmeline Parkhurst was arrested seven times before achieving women’s suffrage in England. And would any of the major civil rights initiatives of the 1960s have become a reality if Martin Luther King had told the throngs at the Washington Monument, “I have a realistic, practical plan for incremental change”?

I spent the month of April in Berlin. The balcony in the room where I slept looked directly across Gethsemane Place to the Gethsemane Church, where in 1989 a small group of activists held public debates and prayer vigils in an unsuccessful attempt to reform the East German government. After mass arrests of demonstrators, the church kept its doors open around the clock for a growing number of people lighting candles as part of an ongoing peace vigil. Despite another round of mass arrests in early October, the movement continued to grow and spread across the German Democratic Republic. Within one month, party leader Erich Honeker resigned, the Berlin wall was torn down, and the Communist party lost power. A year later, East Germany became part of the German Federal Republic. Perhaps none of this would have come to pass if the idealists at the Gethsemane Church had been realistic.

All these events:  the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of an African-American president, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and more, are expressions of the kind of profound change brought about by those who live by hope. Perhaps an even more powerful example is what I witnessed in Berlin. As you know, Berlin was the capital of the Third Reich, the place from which were implemented the near extermination of the Jewish population of Europe, the unnecessary deaths of over 50 million innocent civilians, the pointless destruction of great cities and civilizations. Our train stops at the cheerful lakeside beach park at Wannsee, where the Nazi leadership planned what they called “the final solution to the Jewish problem.” So it is not surprising that to this day there are Jews who refuse to speak a word of German, to buy a German car, or to travel to Germany, especially Berlin.

Despite this darkest of histories, Berlin now hosts the largest, most vibrant, and most diverse Jewish community in Europe. There are German Jews who either survived in hiding during the war or returned in later years to the city they once loved and called their own. There are Russian Jews who fled en masse from persecution in the former Soviet Union. And most surprisingly, Berlin has become the favorite destination of expatriate Israelis, escaping the violence and military culture in the Jewish homeland for “the Tel Aviv of Europe,” an exciting and vibrant place for startup millionaires and starving artists, where they can live in peace, and safety, often even building bridges of friendship with their counterpart expats from Iran and the Arab world.

I don’t by any means intend to say that Berlin is the new Shangri-La for Jews and others. The community there faces sometimes violent anti-Semitism from neo Nazi groups, Islamic fundamentalists, and anti-Israel forces on the left. And the shadow of the Holocaust looms large. There are still survivors alive who experienced the horror directly, and many from the next generation who carry the burden in their souls. And for all the glittering new highrises and kooky artsy facades, the ghosts of the past loom everywhere---architectural relics from the bad old days, plaques commemorating events one might prefer to forget, TV shows and art exhibitions recollecting the perpetrators and their victims. Most powerfully, there are little bronze squares cemented into the sidewalks all over Germany with the names of Jews who had once lived in the adjacent building, when they were picked up, and where they were taken.

With this kind of darkness around them, the Jews who have flocked to Berlin are a living testament to the power of hope. They may still have nightmares of the past, yet they recognize that then was then and now is now. There may be real threats today, but it is better to get to know your adversaries than to run away from them, and to spread the message of love and justice so the infection of hatred and bigotry cannot fester.

Two friends of ours, Cantor Jalda Rebling and artist Anna Adam, found a unique way to act from this kind of hope. They fixed up an old Volkswagen camper with flamboyant colors and outrageous symbols and call it “The Happy Hippy Jew Bus.” In the summer, they drive around the Germany boldly celebrating their Jewish identity and entering dialogue with hecklers. They also get invited to schools and institutions to work with kids to overcome their prejudices and learn about the Jews they were taught at home to hate. I didn’t know what to expect when riding for an hour across Berlin in the Happy Hippy Jew Bus:  obscene gestures? Rock throwing? Name calling?  In fact, no one even seemed to notice us, camouflaged by the colors and flamboyance of that lively city.

Yet my greatest challenge in Berlin was to give a sermon on the week’s Torah reading, which happened to deal with the ritual of the scapegoat. I know just enough about second generation holocaust trauma to know what a dangerous subject the scapegoat can be. Our ancestors in the gas chambers were the scapegoat for a society unable to take ownership of its own weaknesses. Plus if I want to empower people, I speak about surplus powerlessness and that we have the power to change our lives. But if I suggest we are responsible for what happens in the world, am I saying that in some way Hitler’s victims were responsible for their fate?

Here’s how I handled it:  Our actions do affect our lives on a personal level, but there are also major political and societal forces that lead to consequences beyond our control. In Leviticus, the community came together and confessed the personal patterns and destructive actions that have led to suffering. They resolved to change behavioral patterns in the coming year and made a confessional offering in their resolve to change. They needed enough hope to believe this would make a difference, but they and we understandably often feel weighted down by the difficulty of dealing with too many, too firmly engrained behavior patterns. So we look to someone else to help us carry the pattern that is beyond what we are capable of handling ourselves.

Thus the Biblical scapegoat is like a porter in an old-fashioned hotel or Pullman rail car. It carries the burden that is too heavy for us to bear. It’s ironic that Christian anti-Semitism made Jews into the scapegoat, saying that we killed Christ. While in fact, it was Christ himself who was the true scapegoat in Christianity:  AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIS PECCATA MUNDI – The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The point of adding a scapegoat to the ancient ritual for the day of atonement was to give people hope that the burden of transforming their lives would not seem so beyond their reach that they would give up hope. I quoted a couple of Talmudic comments that suggest that this is how the ancient rabbis understood the scapegoat ritual. And finally, I told the Berliners that it is this measured level of hope that fuels the work of the NSP, that they can join us in the work of changing the bottom line of society through respectful dialogue with those around them.

In closing, I’d like to say that when I first visited this church to plan today’s service, I saw living proof of how hope can create the world we want to live in. I’m assuming that this congregation is not completely swimming in money, yet you managed to bring a powerful vision to life of the meeting place that expresses your values, of the community that lives those values, and of a world that can radiate out from this space. The word “faith” probably doesn’t play any better with Unitarians than it does with Jews, and yet there is a genuine faith that there is goodness in the world, much of it hidden in tiny crevasses in the soil, and that this goodness, when nourished by the light of our good intentions and the rain of our efforts, can unfold and blossom, bringing beauty and truth to places of degradation and abuse of power. What you have done to this building, you and we together have the power to do to the world around us.


If you'd like to learn more about the Network of Spiritual Progressives and its philosophy of radical, prophetic empathy, here are some resources:

You will find detailed information about their platform and ideas at:

For more in depth reading, these are books by NSP founder, Rabbi Michael Lerner: