Faith, Facebook, and the Weight of Words

Synopsis for 2018.08.19: In these trying times, our Seven Principles call upon us to uphold the democratic process. But what does that mean when it comes to social media and the inherent worth and dignity of all (including those with whom we disagree)? Dr. Cribbs used ideas from this summer’s sermons at MLUUC to explore this topic.

Listen to the audio:

Faith, Facebook, and the Weight of Words
by Aimee Cribbs, EdD

Being a human is a completely and totally exhausting experience. I have an extreme case of sleep apnea, which doesn’t help, but what I am referring to is the mental exhaustion of experiencing our current America. I cannot seem to separate myself from the pain of our present culture of discord. I know I’m not alone in these feelings, as well as the acknowledgement that “something’s gotta give”. The fact is, we really can’t go on like this. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it will take to create authentic change in our society. This morning, I’d like to explore my ideas about the loss of community that threatens the fabric of our society and our crucial role as rural UUs in restoring our society’s sense of connection to one another.

Throughout this talk, I will reference the work of John Pavlovitz. I chose his work because many of us are familiar with it. In his book, A Bigger Table, Pavlovitz suggests that we can build a more welcoming spiritual community through “total authenticity, true diversity, agenda-free community and radical hospitality.” I believe that these principles apply not only within our own spiritual communities, but also in our relationships with the larger world. I also suggest that radical hospitality is not possible or authentic without radical empathy.

I want to back up to how the seed for this sermon was planted. Scott Dillard spoke to us early this summer about what it means to be a truly welcoming congregation. He spoke with honesty and compassion about the UU tendency to be critical of traditional Christianity and conservative political beliefs. His sermon echoed thoughts I shared, especially after an experience that Kathy shared during the discussion following the sermon.

I’ve chosen A Bigger Table as the centerpiece of this talk for multiple reasons. I agree with the message of the book 100%. And after hearing John speak at Cherry Log Christian Church this spring, I have no doubt that he is a loving man with pure intentions. But I worry that, like so much of what I see on Facebook, his blog does not live up to the radical hospitality we so desperately need.

This spring, a group of four of us were discussing John Pavlovitz’s visit to MLUUC. The group included three MLUU members and a member of Cherry Log who came to our church to hear John speak. We were discussing the concerns visitors expressed about the aggressive, political nature of the MLUUC talk. Our friend from Cherry Log added that someone in our congregation came up to her at the event and said, “I’m glad to see you’re one of us and not one of them.” Around the same time, I was working on an order for our MLUUC t-shirts. We ended up with two unclaimed shirts because the person who ordered them decided not to return to our church. She found our congregation too political and that she felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. This was not the first person to leave our congregation because he/she felt chastised for conservative political leanings.

This isn’t easy to talk about, but I hope you agree that it is something we need to address within our own congregation at the very least, if not in the larger community. I’m not trying in any way, shape or form to suggest that I am holier than thou. Heaven and Chris Cribbs know that I’ve said some pretty ridiculous stuff in my time. Probably today. The intention of this sermon isn’t judgement, but to find an honest, healthy response to the shared pain that has become a part of our daily lives.

I think you need a little more of my back story to understand my perspective and why I cannot be silent on this matter. Although my parents each voted the same way in the last four presidential elections, they had not in the preceding years. When I tell folks that I grew up with one Republican-voting parent and one Democrat-voting parent, they are astounded. I usually hear something like, “Wow. That must’ve been tough.” They are even more astounded to hear that it was really no big deal at all. I know that this characteristic of my upbringing contributes directly to the heartbreak I feel because of the current political divide.

During my mother’s “country” decorating phase of the 80s, we had a wooden elephant and a wooden donkey on our mantle. My parents always voted and always went to the polls together. They joked about cancelling out each other’s vote and that was that. That’s not to say that they never discussed issues. I grew up hearing both of my parents clearly articulate why they voted the way they did. And for this I am eternally grateful. I understand that I am not defined by how I vote. My vote is simply a reflection of the candidate I feel most closely aligns with my ideals (and it never is anywhere near a 100% match). While I acknowledge that the political landscape has evolved immensely since the 80s and that our political leaders give us more than ample reason for concern, I would argue that the need for civil, issue-based discussion has not disappeared. In fact, I’d say the need is greater than ever.

A second important piece of my backstory is that I haven’t had cable TV in my home for most of my adult life. In fact, our family room doesn’t have a TV in it at all (and neither does Kathy’s, which made her friendship any easy sell). Our TV is in a separate room from the main level of the house, upstairs, so we have to make the conscious decision to watch. I don’t watch the news, I read it. I have noticed that it physically bothers me to be in a home where the TV is on constantly. I am extreme in my beliefs about the media and this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. But, again, this directly contributes to my concern about our faith community and the larger American society. As I said to a friend recently, I don’t feel that I’m losing my country to a president or a party. I am losing it to social media and 24-hour news. Fake news and the assault on free press is a real concern, but I am talking about something different. We’ve let TV and Twitter; Facebook and its fantasy replace real people and real conversations. Again…I’m not perfect or exempt. Several of my jobs require me to use Facebook and I will admit that I find myself “killing time” there more often now that I work at home alone. So, this talk is for me, too.

So, what is radical empathy? Change starts with a focus on the future and the power of intention. We crave something different, but where do we want to go from here? I personally believe that the root of our discord comes from a lack of connectedness paired with extreme tribalism. We are suffering on a societal level. Though I believe that our leaders’ words and actions can exasperate or dissipate this discord, it is ultimately we the people who are going to change the tone and direction of society.

I personally hope for a day that our society is less entrenched in social media and extended screen time, when we can use critical thinking and discussion skills to address politics issue by issue and person by person, instead of as the playoff of the red and blue teams. I look for a day where we can find compromise and stop allowing the extremes to inform our perceptions of others. I also hope a day will come soon when our leaders are held accountable for impartiality, honesty and transparency across all political affiliations.

The work that will bring about real change, starts with us: the people. Yes, a lot of change needs to happen within our governments, but none of that matters if the real people down here on the playing field have lost their connection to one another. Extending the bigger table is the answer to restoring lost connections, not only in our faith communities, but also in our towns and schools, across states, ethnicities, religions and political groups.
Pavlovitz (2017) describes the diversity we must welcome at the bigger

… every church on the planet claims to desire, seek, and welcome diversity—until real, messy, diverse diversity shows up at the door looking for a home, and then there’s suddenly no room at the inn. Most faith communities have a diversity threshold, a limited level of difference that they will tolerate comfortably…In the Church we’re trying to have the deepest community but beginning on a superficial level, which means eventually it isn’t about magic, but about real, costly, difficult work…Part of this difficult work will involve moving beyond immediately categorizing people by their religious or political convictions…Real diversity needs to be a nonnegotiable of the bigger table, but it’s never accomplished without intention, self-examination, and brutal honesty about ourselves at every moment (p. 84).

Authentic community is not easy to pull off, but don’t lose hope. As Margaret Meade (and Barry Whittemore) remind us: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

What exactly should we remain committed to? As UUs, social justice and activism come to mind. I consider myself an activist. I have marched and will continue to march for causes in which I believe. But non-violent protest isn’t the only form of activism we UUs practice. We must look at our interactions with the community in person and online as a form of activism. We must be fully aware of the weight of our words, and the intentions they reveal.

In the Winter 2017 issue of UU World, the Rev. Ranwa Hammamy explains UU activism. Rev. Hammamy is an elder care chaplain, as well as a community minister at Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, CA:

‘Teach us therefore to love’…. This line from a prayer by the Jamaican Unitarian minister Egbert Ethelred Brown speaks to the despair that our ‘troubled and puzzled world’ brings, and to the duty that comes with bearing witness to that pain. That duty, I believe, is the commitment to action that comes with the decision to call oneself a Unitarian Universalist.

Our faith tradition was born out of the efforts of activists—people who committed their lives to bringing about social, political and spiritual transformation. We often see ‘activism’ as protests in the streets, meetings with local legislators, phone-banking with community organizers, legal challenges to discriminatory laws. It is also the creation of music and art that shares truths that cannot be captured by words alone. Activism is the use of liberationist pedagogies that empower students to co-create an anti-oppressive curriculum. It is the vigil in the public square where we are reminded to #SayHerName each time another trans woman of color is killed. Activism is the preparation of a hot meal for the countless protesters who have been sitting outside in the cold Minnesota winter for days. So, yes, I do believe that to be a Unitarian Universalist, you need to be an activist. You need to love actively in the face of a broken world (Wiley, K & Walton, C., 2017, p. 33).

Wow. We need to love actively in the face of a broken world. I would add that, as UUs, this active love calls us not only to express love, but to teach it. In the words of Nelson Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Today’s responsive reading revisited the lyrics of the hymn, Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire. This hymn was the cornerstone of a wonderful sermon this summer by Kasey Castleberry. In his sermon, he reminded us that, “…. if we are not guided by love, then every word that we utter and every deed that we deliver, no matter how glorious they appear, are nothing more than illusions of truth. It matters not if our intent is to mislead others or if we are simply deluding ourselves. Without love, we are broken.”

This is very true and easier said than done. To say that today’s climate is tense would be an understatement. Within the alternate reality of social media and 24-hour news, we are constantly confronted with opposition, often aggressively. Human nature is to meet aggression with more aggression. Can we, like Mandela suggests, teach ourselves and others to meet aggression with love? Meeting aggression with love is no easy task, but I believe that it is the only way to bring about authentic change. More importantly, I believe it is our duty as UUs. If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of ALL, doesn’t that also include those who’s opinions make our skin crawl?

In a TED talk, the researcher Paul Parkin describes empathy in a way which has reshaped my interactions and relationships. We often think of empathy as the ability to understand someone else’s position or point of view. Atticus Finch described it as walking around in someone else’s skin for a while. Parkin explains that empathy is more than this…it is not the actual act of understanding. It is the righteous struggle to try. The truth is, I don’t understand what it’s like to be anyone but myself. (And most of the time, I don’t even understand that). I can’t truly empathize with even those closest to me…my husband, my daughters, my friends. But I sure as heck can TRY to understand. I’m afraid that the clear majority of society isn’t even trying. Kasey described cognitive fluency. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to love or speak with love to someone who holds beliefs with which we completely and totally disagree. But I’m not giving up on the notion that it’s possible.

If we are asking those with whom we disagree to see our point of view, we must be willing to do the same. We must accept the glorious fact that society is never going to agree. We must move beyond identifying groups by their worst extremes. We need to refocus on individuals–people–and the vast differences in our beliefs and experiences, within groups– even within this congregation.

So, let me get back to the idea that we, right here in this room, are the locus of change. This is where radical empathy comes in. How many of you were born and raised in Ellijay? How many of you, like myself, moved to Ellijay to find a simpler, quieter life style? We are here in Ellijay because we understand the best of both worlds. We are the point at which two worlds collide. I am sure that, like me, you hear things out and about in town that makes your hair stand on end. But I am also sure you’d agree that we really do have a pleasant community that genuinely cares for one another. We might have different frameworks and terminology for our beliefs, but our shared values are significant. That’s why we’re here in this little mountain town. And that’s why it is so very important for us to choose our words to match our intentions and continue to speak with love, even when that is not what is being offered to us. We get it. We acknowledge white privilege and the struggle our brothers and sisters of color face to this day. We know that there ain’t no way our LGBTQ friends and family are going to hell. We understand that God is too big for any one religion and we all deserve to pray the way we chose. But we also understand the loving people of Appalachia who feel threatened and misunderstood.

As a final illustration of our need to start a bigger conversation about what we share, I keep going back to John Pavolvitz’s story of “Sign Guy”. Pavolovitz (2017) writes:

While attending a conference for LGBTQ Christians, I was in the coffee shop of a hotel lobby talking with a young lesbian woman about equality, compassion, faith—about the bigger table. Just outside the window where we were sitting stood a man carrying a large sign that assured this girl that she was going to hell. I’ll call him Sign Guy. He was yelling and pacing and quite clearly there to preach and not to listen. The girl looked at me and asked, “So how do I respond to that? How do I love Sign Guy?? (I was sort of hoping I could phone a friend.) I thought about it a second and suggested that for her and me, the key is to try and see one fundamental similarity between us and the man; that we are all trying to do the very same thing at this moment, to hear and respond to the voice of God that we hear in our heads. So while Sign Guy’s methods and manner are outwardly quite horrible, and while they are coming across as violent, hateful and intolerant, in his mind at this moment he is doing exactly what we are doing right now. He is trying to be faithful to whatever image of God he’s inherited. No one ever thinks “I am doing this wrong”. Everyone believes that they are living and responding out of genuine faith (p. 93).

Radical empathy takes fortitude and control. It is hard work. Let me be clear. Speaking with love is not the same as being complacent. I’m not suggesting we remain silent about our concerns, but remain focused on intention and outcome when we express those concerns. Self-reflection will ensure that our words move us one step closer to the ends we hope to achieve. It’s also relevant to recognize that the most important conversations don’t happen on social media, but around office lunch tables, at extended family meals and neighborhood gatherings. As Pavlovitz (2017) writes, “The kind of intimacy…that was and is transformational, only comes with close proximity. It is not possible screamed from across the road or shouted from a pulpit or laid out in a carefully researched dissertation. It cannot be gleaned from a clever meme or spirited Twitter exchange or debate. It only comes through the redemptive relationship forged when we are willing to sit across from people who believe differently than we believe, willing to get close and stay long enough to see both their unique humanity and inherent divinity. This is how we love people well… (p. 121).”

We aren’t perfect, and we need to make room for our humanness. We’re going to get mad at the world and probably our neighbors. We’ll feel rage and sadness and there will be moments that we’ll want to scream and yell, picket and maybe punch someone in the face. These are the times that it is most important to find love, which may be nothing other than saying nothing at all.

In closing, I’d like to share a reading from my wedding. I imagine it is familiar to most of you. While I’ve always hoped for this to describe my relationship with my husband, I also believe it captures the UU love for humanity I’ve described today:

1 Corinthians 13:4 – 8; 13
(NIV) Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. . . And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Pavlovitz, J. (2017). A Bigger Table. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.
Wiley, K. & Walton, C. (2017). Do you need to be an activist to be a Unitarian
Universalist? UU World, Winter, p. 30-39.


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