If I Can’t Dance, It’s Not My Revolution

Opening Words

We come this day, as we have so many Sundays before, searching, seeking. We come this day, with news from afar and from quite close, that weighs heavy in our hearts.

We come this day, to remember the hope we hold, the dream that guides us, the spark that comes each time we take another’s hand.

This day, let us bring our sadness, let us bring our worry, let us bring our love and our joy. This day we make together.

Reading

I invite you now into a moment of reflection, of meditation, of prayer. I will offer a reading, then a question, then we will have a moment of silent space, and then music to slowly call us back.

I invite you to put your feet flat on the floor, to close your eyes if you’re comfortable, to open your heart as you are able, and to breathe. In – out.

The words of Emma Goldman

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me

“it does not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It is undignified for one who is on their way to becoming a force in the anarchist movement. Your frivolity will only hurt the cause.”

I said to him then as I say now,

If I can’t dance, it is not my revolution!

If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.

If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming.

Meditation

What do you require of the revolution for you to bring your whole self?

Sermon

“Joy Cometh in the Morning” the Hebrew Scriptures tell us.

I wake up many mornings now, wondering if it is still true.

I wonder when I look at the world where I am to find hope.

And I think about all that must be responded to and my heart grows heavy.

I think about all the wrongs in the world and my spirit feels too weak.

And I think about how hard it is to find a sense of revelry, of joy, in my day.

Lately, watching the American political landscape, and watching how what is happening there is emboldening racists and misogynists here at home, I feel like we may be on the verge of something, and that we are certainly in need of something.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about revolution, I’ve been thinking about giant shifts in culture, I’ve been thinking about how we sustain ourselves and one another in what may be a long hard fight, how do we support people resisting and how we care for ourselves.

And I remember Emma Goldman, whose affirmation of the necessity of joy and of revelry and of dancing, are integral for me in any movement that I would join.

And yet, joy and revelry are sometimes still so hard to find.


19th Century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who influenced many New England Unitarians and Transcendentalists, once said, “There is no more mistaken path to happiness than revelry.”

Theologian Desiderius Erasmus said, “Reflection is a flower of the mind, giving out wholesome fragrance; revelry is that same flower, gone rank and running to seed.”

Or perhaps 9th President of the United States William Henry Harrison, who wrote that “Conscience, the still small voice of God in the human heart, the loudest revelry cannot drown.”

Revelry is a more contentious notion than any of us expected. For some it stands in direct opposition to conscience, the very voice of God within you.

But it’s no great surprise to me that our world today should resist revelry.

What surprises me is how often I have denied it of myself; how often I see others deny themselves.

There are days when I am overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed by an awareness of how much there is to do.

Not just in the lists on my desk, on my computer, on my phone, on scraps of paper and pads by the phone.

I am overwhelmed on Facebook, in the news, in the email inbox with newsletters from non-profit organizations and calls to march, to demonstrate, to sit in vigil.

We can all be inundated with stories that break our hearts or stir our anger as we wonder where compassion has gone in politics and in society, how one could treat another so.

And there are simply so many places we could be acting, so many things that could and should be better.

For every campaign won, another waits in the wings. Another wrong that must be righted. Another march to be marched. Another petition to sign.

And it can be exhausting and it can leave little space for revelry, for play, for joy in our lives. And it can have too little of those within.

Because if we’re off enjoying ourselves, who is fixing all the many things that are wrong?

In the late 19th century, early 20th, around the same time that Emma Goldman was immigrating to the US, causing a ruckus with labour organizers and dancing up a storm before being exiled back to Russia, there was a Baptist Minister by the name of Walter Rauschenbusch.

Rauschenbusch, like many of his contemporaries, took serious issue with the idea that the purpose of one’s life was to escape hell and gain heaven simply by “taking Christ as our personal lord and saviour.”

For Rauschenbusch that was all words, no action – a too weak faith.

For him it was selfish to be concerned only with our own fate, ignorant of Jesus’ actions in the world and the labour and longing for justice that being Christian called followers to.

He led what came to be known as the social gospel movement and today’s social justice movements are among its inheritors. They were active in housing, food and labour justice, supporting women’s suffrage and furthering the abolitionist cause.

Rauschenbusch and his contemporaries were motivated by an understanding that we, all of us, are the ones responsible for manifesting the Kin-dom of God. That the beloved community only awaits our making it.

We embraced that ourselves, adopted it strongly as Unitarians and Universalists; as liberal, progressive people.

We are here to make Eden real, to make paradise real, to fix everything that is wrong – to make the dream of justice, abundance, and peace real on earth, for all people.

Like the prophets of old.

We have our place in this narrative, we Unitarian Universalists.

We have threads in our woven past of theologians who said that we are saved by our acts, by what we do for one another.

On the walls of the UU church where I grew up were the words of the Rev. James Freeman Clarke who said that the coming theology was “The brotherhood of Man, The leadership of Jesus, Salvation by character, And the progress of mankind. Onward and upward — Forever and ever!”

Over the years many of us dropped the Jesus or gave him new names, and updated the gender labels.

But salvation by character, by our acts for justice, that thread is still woven around many of us.

In my parents’ and grandparents’ generations it was marching in the streets for racial and gender justice, it was building a church where religious freedom was unassailable, it was settling and hiding draft dodgers, and it was the anti-nuclear movement.

In my generation it has been gender identity and sexual orientation, the environment and climate change, forced migration, racial divisions and globalizing industry that constantly expands economic inequity.

I wonder what it will be in my son Rowan’s days. I know I find myself wondering already if I’m doing enough as a parent, shouldn’t I be doing more?

We imagine still that heaven, that beloved community. But, when all we have to hope for is an imagined future, the gap between what is and what could be is suffocating.

The hoped-for future always condemns the present, and now is never enough.

We haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t researched smart enough, haven’t organized widely enough, haven’t lived purely enough. Haven’t marched long enough.

Taking a break, enjoying the moment, finding the grace in nature or in our companions – these can lead us to guilt because they are just more moments in which we imagine we should have been working to make heaven on earth real or to heal another’s suffering.

In this understanding of the world, taking a break is a moral failing. Enjoying oneself and celebrating are seen as denial of the work still left to do. And in the model of the social gospel we’ve inherited we seem to inevitably snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There’s a fundraiser coming up in Victoria for Child Haven that’s being put on by folks who have been leaders in the Pride Week celebrations there, in the queer community.

It’s a reminder for me of times in my youth when the pride parade wasn’t what it is now.

In Toronto hundreds of thousands come and there are floats for banks, and political parties, insurance brokers and many more who would have been nowhere near the parade in 1993, the first year I went.

I remember marching with Toronto’s first gay school trustee and its first gay city councillor.

And I remember marching aware that it was a political act, that it was an act of resistance, and that there was risk in it, though always more for my friends and their families than for me.

Amidst the many who clapped and waved, I remember too the homophobic slurs shouted from the sidewalk and threats made in the bright light of day.

And I remember too the parties that came after the march was done.

I remember the revelry that filled the afternoon, evening and straight on to morning.

I remember the joy of the laughter, of the dancing, of the release of being no longer on display to the world but among compatriots and comrades and free.

I remember how much the people needed it after the work of the day.

And I remember the columns in the local LGBT newspaper excoriating those whose revelry was seen to be just too far, to be at odds with being accepted, at odds with the goals of the movement, at odds with being accepted as being just like everyone else.

I read condemnations of the bears in their assless chaps, the bootblacks and their leather, and the queens in their feathery regalia.

Those columns made me sad and they made me forget sometimes the joy of the nights prior, when we reveled from dusk to dawn.

And sometimes they made me feel guilty for that joy, for that revelry, saying I should have been thinking of the many others still oppressed.

Sometimes I recognize that I wear that guilt, that social gospel, as a commandment upon my body. Tattooed on my wrists are the words patience and fortitude.

Be patient, a better day is coming. Have fortitude, be resilient and steadfast, your continuing work draws it nearer.

The Kindom of God is approaching, the revolution is coming, equal rights are coming, climate justice is coming. Just work harder, just work longer, just keep going.

The social gospel still alive in Unitarian Universalism demands, as the Reverend Rebecca Parker says, the “liberation of the oppressed, food for the hungry, peace for all people, and reverence for the earth. These are exalted and exalting hopes, and I believe in them.”

Like Parker, I believe in them too. But like her too I have come to see them as roots that sometimes strangle the new seeds we plant.

And I wonder what commandments are written upon us still, in our hearts and minds, that can lead us to guilt over delight.

When have you felt guilty at enjoying life, at enjoying small pleasures, when there is still work to do? Work of justice or the simple work of life?

We preach not indulgence, not hedonism, but joy and wonder and delight fed by commitment to love another, to see one another as deserving, intriguing, beloved. The work is abundant, and it calls us to it, but the work can be filled with anger at what we resist or it can be filled with joy at what we still and ever yearn to become.

While the work of the social gospel is essential and meaningful, celebration and revelry are integral in social change, they are vital in progressive movements and in liberal religious communities.

bell hooks wrote “We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humour. Every time we see any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humourless, they fail. Humour is essential to the integrative balance that we need to deal with diversity and difference and the building of community.” What hooks says of humour is doubly true of revelry, of celebration.

When Emma Goldman was told that it was unbecoming for revolutionaries to dance, Goldman replied by stating “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”

For Goldman a joyful life, a life of revelry, was one of the goals of social transformation and, like many anarchists, she believed that we should be living the kind of life we are working towards as much as possible.

We believe that our work and our worth are connected, but they are not the same thing, and that worth – my worth, your worth, our worth –  is not dependent on that work.

We need our being to reflect our becoming, and our being is filled with hope and love that will not be contained.

For the things we revel in are the things we are revealed in. We will be known by our joy, by our love and by our compassion. In the days to come let us be known by action that says we are doing right and we are doing well. And let us be revealed in our revelry. Blessed be and amen.

Song Introduction

While Emma Goldman was clearly pretty big on the dancing, it seems to me that when I try I suddenly have three left feet. My revelry generally takes the form of singing.

My revolution and my revelry are always just a melody away, in the songs written on my heart and the harmonies of my neighbour’s voice.

Benediction

Beside my desk is a card with a drawing of a rose.

It’s labeled an anti-capitalist love note.

And on it is the reminder “You are worth so much more than your productivity.”

In this congregation and in this tradition, our revolution is based in love and in compassion, in joyful covenanted community.

Here, and everywhere, you are worth so very much more than your productivity.

So dance when the rhythm compels you, sing when the spirit moves you, pray when your heart needs to.

The light of hope, the light of peace, the light of love all shine upon each beautiful, radiant face. May it bring faith, to guide our journey home. Blessed be and amen.