“Kindness as a Subversive Activity” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – October 16, 2016
Opening Words – from Robert F. Kennedy
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he [or she] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
2nd Reading – from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd – p. 146-148 in paperback edition
Sermon – “Kindness as a Subversive Activity” – Mark W. Harris
I tend to use everything I read as sermon fodder. This means I end up not doing any reading for pleasure. I have been reading a book called Ten Hills Farm by C.S. Manegold. When Andrea asked about using it in a sermon, I said I was not taking notes, but was reading it merely to nourish my love for history. She responded, “That’s unusual.” So it was. The subtitle is “The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North.” I once had the impression that slavery here in New England was a benevolent kind of slavery. Indeed, I had heard slave masters described as being kind to their slaves, unlike the Southern slaveholders who we learned were the owners of large plantations with hundreds of slaves requiring violent bureaucratic control instead of familial affection. Here in New England we learned that slaves were few and far between, and that they lived in the master’s house, and were well clothed and fed. They were cared for by kind people like our New England ancestors.
Some years ago I was part of a tour at Old Sturbridge Village, when a fellow tourist asked about the trundle like beds that were on the floor just off the kitchen, far removed from the master bedroom upstairs. The guide had no clue why those beds were there, but I suggested they might have been where the slaves slept. She then stared me down with a cold look, which implied how dare you suggest that we once had slaves here. This coming June we hope to visit a Southern plantation outside of New Orleans, which tells the story of slavery from the slave’s point of view. But you don’t have to travel quite that far. In nearby Medford, there is a magnificent mansion called the Royall House, which was the home to the largest slave owning family in Massachusetts, built on property once owned by John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, and passenger on the beloved Arbella. Next to the Royall House is the Slave Quarters, home to the captured Africans who allowed the Royalls to live such a royal life. The Slave Quarters is the only remaining such structure in the northern United States. Sure enough it was an out kitchen, like what I saw at Sturbridge, that was first constructed in the 1730’s and then enlarged to house all the slaves.
Wealthy families then and now often like to show off their wealth, and that was evident from their home, and in the fine silk dresses that appear in a John Singleton Copley painting of two Royall daughters. Even though they made a pampered life possible, slaves were not something families boasted about. The Royalls had 70 slaves on various properties in New England, and scores more on estates in Antigua. But were they kind to their slaves, or was it merely another version of slave life as endured in the West Indies, where slaves were in rebellion, forcing their fearful masters to travel north? Even in tranquil Medford, slave parents watched children they could not protect, husbands lived with wives who could be sold away, and generations lived and died never knowing a breath of freedom. Were the masters kind?
A few years ago, more than twenty to be exact, our son Levi, then a baby, was asleep in our car at the Star Market in Belmont. There is a cross walk there between the parking lot, and the entrance to the store. On this particular day, two elderly women each equipped with her own cane, were trying to cross to go into the store. Andrea was nearby placing her food purchases in the trunk of our car. There was another woman driving a car and trying to tear across the parking lot, using it as a short cut to get to Rte. 60. But the car in front of her had stopped at the cross walk to let the women cross, and was holding her up. She began to lean on her horn. She became quite animated trying to get the stopped car to move. Andrea went over to tell her that the car was stopped so the women could cross, but she would have none of it. She started to scream at Andrea, “this is none of your business. It has nothing to do with you.” But Andrea replied, “oh yes it does, because you woke up my baby.” In one fell swoop the woman stressed out the older women, the driver of the car in front of her, and ruined a baby’s rare moment of sleep, all because she was in a hurry to get through. Was she kind?
In a frequently quoted passage from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Rosewater is trying to prepare a baptismal speech for his neighbor’s twins. How to welcome these babies? The wording gets to the heart of what is important in life. But we also feel Vonnegut’s frustration at people who don’t understand this simple lesson that they need to know. He writes: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it,you’ve got to be kind.” But what do we really mean by being kind? Most of us would never use the word kind in reference to a slaveholder. Yet it was a term I heard applied when comparing slavery in different places. Just the very condition of slavery makes it impossible to define their life as filled with any kindness. There is no kindness if your basic condition is servitude. Here there were rebellions, suicides, and tragedy in response to this condition. Is a domestic abuser kind if he does not beat you today, or tell you he is sorry for what he did? Is he kind if he brings you a band-aid for your wounds? Do we say he really didn’t mean it? If I am kind to him, perhaps he won’t hurt me? Of course we have to stand up for ourselves. Being kind to everyone no matter what they do to you is not a healthy spiritual path.
In the Harvard Magazine this summer, I saw that Professor Kimberly Patton was quoted as saying that kindness is not some saccharine kind of sweetness, and not just being nice to everyone, but that kindness is actually a subversive thing. How can kindness be so radical? This is an important question for religious communities because we tend to think that being part of a church is cultivating a culture of niceness. We assume kindness changes people. If we are always nice to someone, they will be nice in return. Yet we all know people in church, in community groups and at work who take advantage of people who are nice to them. They continue to demand their own way or they do not reciprocate. I think of people as givers and users. So if niceness does not convert a user to a giver, how can kindness be a subversive activity, especially if you always feel used? It seems to me that you bring about kindness in the long run, if you place some demands or some limits on the person that is using you. You may say to them you can’t behave like that, or if you want to be part of this group, then you must contribute to it. You use a little of Vonnegut’s frustration and say, Damn it, straighten up and fly right.
This is where Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem on “Kindness” is helpful. She tells us you do not really understand kindness until you lose things, or until your future dissolves. Did you ever take that long bus ride and feel like you would never reach your destination? The streets were desolate and unfamiliar. Did you ever feel completely lost or forlorn, until someone sees that you are desperate for help, and they ask you what they can do to alleviate your obvious dilemma or assure you or show you that you are going to reach the street or town you are seeking. There was a story on the news the other night about a woman from Cleveland, who usually only left her home to go to church. She decided to go to a gospel concert in North Carolina, but got lost on the way home. Desperate for help she asked for directions at a 7/11 store. A man not only told her how to get to Cleveland, he led her onto the highway. This one act of kindness gave her the confidence that she could always find help to get home, and she soon applied for a new job and moved to another city. The white man who helped this African American woman crossed more than one barrier to offer kindness, and they became friends. Can we discover a new friend who will be kind and help us find our way home?
I think of my fellow travelers on Mt. Kathadin this summer who saw me sitting on a rock, bleeding from my cut legs, and exhausted. They offered food, water, and details about who to ask to come help me. Some climbers just walked on by. Some wondered how they could assist me? Do you suppose those who were most kind knew what it was to have gone through such a difficult day? Did that make them more sympathetic? How about the anti-good Samaritans we have experienced such as when I was hit by the ocean wave, and lay crushed on the beach, only to have one set of onlookers, jump in their car and drive away, and the other accuse us of being stupid? What about the one that agreed to help? Do you suppose that having that kind of experience makes me more kind? And does the person who was honking at the older women feel remorse that she woke up the baby or caused such stress? Or do we just presume she feels bad because we would? She might just believe she had the right to behave that way.
We know that kindness can be an act that turns a situation around from what is normally expected. Take the classic example of the Good Samaritan. For most of us, it is easy to be kind to our kin. We have this responsibility to take care of them. Scientists have shown that we will give aid and even sacrifice ourselves for the common good of the group we identify with, especially if we can defeat an enemy. The classic Samaritan story turns around the expected. Jesus reaches out to a member of a group that would normally be seen as the despised enemy. That’s how we were seen when I was hit by the ocean wave at Pemaquid Point in Maine. The witness referred to us as “stupid Massachusetts people.” I guess because we did not understand the ways of the wild Maine wilderness. We despise others because they are different from us or merely because they are from “away.”. But Jesus says, as a human being your obligation is to create a larger family, a family of humankind that will learn from and embrace those who are different from you, because religiously speaking it will make you a person with a deeper heart and soul. Real kindness then is getting outside your comfort zone. You develop a relationship with the person you normally would be afraid of. When you know the other, they are no longer the other.
In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily, the main character, finds strength, love and a new family through her connection with the Boatwright family, African Americans living in the South during the Civil Rights era. The sisters are beekeepers and she learns about their life and work making Black Madonna honey, after they take her into their home. She becomes August’s bee keeping apprentice to repay her for her kindness. In the conversation from the reading she asks August why the house is painted pink. August provides the answer, but also tells her “some things don’t matter that much.” And then she goes on to say that lifting a person’s heart is something that matters, not the color of their house. Lily says that people often don’t know what matters, but August thinks otherwise. She says they do know, but they just don’t choose it. In fact,“The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.” August concludes by saying “Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.” Lily identifies with this secret life because she feels she has one, too. The hive is a community of companions all of whom make the team work. The Queen’s eggs become every single bee in the hive. Driving Lily’s own story is the death of her Mother, and so this story of the source of bee life gives her power. She begins to think of the bees as part God and part Mary, whom August also explains as a spiritual essence that is present everywhere, in everything. What Lily is experiencing is grounded in cultural truths that also must be kept secret. She is a white girl living with black women, a runaway, and a criminal of sorts, and so her life with August must remain a secret—just like the secret life of the bees that goes on inside the hive.
The great religious question is are we going to choose what matters? Are you worried too much about the color of your house? Are you choosing what matters every day of your life? Are you choosing to teach kindness to your children, or choosing to live a life of kindness every day you are alive? The Dalai Lama once said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” This religion of kindness was once thought of as subversive. It was the religion that the Universalist half of our faith taught based on their reading of the scriptures. They reacted to a Calvinist version of Protestantism, which taught that some people were worthy enough to receive heavenly salvation, but most were sinners who would be condemned to the fires of hell for all eternity. The Calvinists even taught that Christ’s death on the cross was an atoning act to appease an angry God who needed to see a blood sacrifice in order that humankind be redeemed for their sinfulness. But the Universalists asked the simple question, if God is a God of love who creates creatures in his/her own image, wouldn’t that God want the creatures to know love. Hosea Ballou the great Universalist preacher declared, “If God is infinitely good then all beings whom his power produced are the objects of his goodness.” If God is good and kind, and the purpose of life is to bring you closer to God, then this understanding of the divine makes you more empathetic, and results in actual acts of loving kindness. This God does not want you to suffer in the fiery pit. This God wants you to be happy. Conversely if your idea of God makes you unkind, belligerent, cruel or self-righteous, then you clearly follow a God who is cruel.
Long ago Universalist opponents said that God must be able to invoke the threat of hell in order that you behave. In other words, they believed that human beings were depraved and needed the threat of punishment in order to be good. Our Universalist ancestors did not deny that people can be unkind. People can honk at the cross walk and wake your baby because they want to get to their destination no matter who or what gets in their way. People can desert you at the ocean’s edge even as you lay crippled in the sand, because they do not want to get involved, especially with stupid out of state people. They can be abusers. They can be racists. We could go on to say they deserve for God to punish them for their unkind behavior. But Universalists said God wants to be reconciled with everyone because we all have the capability to choose kindness.
Furthermore, we are all connected and what we do to others matters. Think how the woman in the parking lot ruined everyone’s day. What if she were patient and kind? We can all choose what matters. Sometimes we naively hold out hope that people will automatically choose kindness. We expect it of people because the God we have always espoused is a source of love and goodness. But our actions do not have to be naïve. What if someone ignores systematic violence against women, and does not name it for the terrible tragedy that it is. Kindness is not just being nice no matter what. It is feeling compassion for the victim. It is becoming an ally to the victim and speaking out in their defense. It is calling the perpetrator to task, and demanding that they turn toward kindness. The only kindness in slaveholding is when you fight for freedom. The only kindness in oppression is when you stand for justice. Can we make kindness a subversive activity? Can we stop being nice, and truly become kind, so that we could invoke that Universalist spirit of the divine that says, no you are not condemned, but you are meant to embrace kindness. This Universalist God says it is never too late. There is still time to choose what matters.
Closing Words – from Friendship by Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Maugre (Notwithstanding) all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.