Soul Force

October 3, 2010
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON                             

Our theme for the Sunday School this year is "Walk a Mile." Yesterday was the birthday of a small Indian man who walked many miles to stand in solidarity with his people, in their quest to be free of British colonial rule and to have a sense of their own dignity and personhood even when they belonged to a caste (social class) that rendered them untouchables. He was a faithful Hindu who also made serious and long studies of Christianity and Islam and he was ardently committed to non-violent resistance, a concept so foreign to most of us that we can only grasp the basics of it.

The people of India celebrate Gandhi's birthday as a national holiday, Gandhi Jayanti, and no liquor or meat are sold in his honor. In 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared October 2 the International Day of Non-Violence.

Our first Unitarian Universalist principle says that we will "affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people," a principle that becomes floppy and sentimental if we do not study it, examine what it really asks of us, and adopt internal and communal practices and disciplines that aid us in making it real in our lives beyond a heartfelt motto. Gandhi, for me, is one of the figures in history who best exemplifies what it means to discipline every part of one's mind, body and actions to conform to that principle. He was not born with a saintly disposition. This is what frightens me about him, quite frankly: Mohandas Gandhi is as an exemplar of spiritual commitment-- a man who actually devoted his life to the transformation of his own heart, mind and actions toward justice and mercy, and who used the soul force that he developed to influence millions of people to act for justice with him. Why is this scary? Because it proves that it can be done. It proves that you or I could do it. Studying Gandhi's life and words, seeing how hard he fought within himself to be true to his own vows, seeing how honest and unsparing his internal inventories were and the sacrifices he made to live into his vision -- is humbling. This little man you see on the cover of your order of service is a monument to spiritual achievement. "Satyagraha" is Gandhi's term for his philosophy. The word Satya means truth in Sanskrit and agraha is translated as "insistence or holding firmly to." These are Gandhi's words describing what he means by this term:

Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase "passive resistance", in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word "satyagraha."

In our Parish Committee retreat last week, the committee members and Stuart and I talked about external factors in the world that affect our lives in church - things to which we want our shared ministry and our mission to respond. We named the increasingly polarized and vicious public discourse around politics and power as one of those factors.

Our national culture and conversation is, in a word, violent. As Gandhi knew, it is not just war that is violent, or physically harming others. Violence originates in the mind, with ideas about life and especially about people. Gandhi experienced this reality again and again in his life as a brown-skinned man working as a barrister in South Africa, where he was subjected to all the degradations of apartheid, and in his own country India, where he was part of the oppressive caste system within Hinduism while all were under the domination of British colonial rule. He devoted his life to dismantling not only the political systems based on domination and subordination, but in dismantling the human proclivity toward tribal mentality by challenging and transforming the way we think, not just our accustomed ways of fighting or reacting to oppression.

Over the past three weeks, six young gay men that we know about have killed themselves as a result of being systematically bullied, harassed, threatened, and publicly humiliated. How do we want to react to that? I know how I want to react: I want to lash out. I want to argue, to fight, to persuade by passionate invective. I am angry. I identify people to blame, enemies.

And yet Gandhi says that in satyagraha there is no enemy.

He says that using non-violence as a political technique without first having truly purified ourselves of internal violence and hatred is absolutely worthless. Gandhi calls us to a moral courage that requires that we see our opponents as brothers. We will have achieved this, he says, when we have purged our lives of emotional violence with our friends and families, in all relations, and when we would be more willing to die at the hands of our "ignorant brother" than to have him die at ours.

"Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence," wrote Gandhi, "So one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence." These are very difficult words to hear. And they can lead us to the wrong conclusions about Satyagraha, which does not encourage passive victimhood or romanticize martyrdom. Satyagraha is based on the Hindu idea of ahimsa, or non-injury. Ahimsa was for Gandhi the Supreme Law. The Gujarati precept, "return good for evil, " was his guiding principle, and when he found that sentiment expressed by Jesus in the Gospels (that his Christian friends were always urging him to read!), he finally found a point of kinship with a religion whose theology generally did not appeal to him at all. Ahimsa may look to the brutish non-practitioner like wimpiness or passivity -- just as we fail to see the wisdom in Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek -- but Gandhi had a deep belief that it was only this approach that would allow one could to live in integrity as a spiritual being and a social being.

He was shamed and humiliated again and again but never diverted from his goals. When Gandhi was beaten in the streets of South Africa by a man who thought it wrong for a "coolie" to walk too close to him on the street, he did not press charges even though a white man who saw the unprovoked assault offered to serve as a witness. When an angry white mob (also in South Africa) came after him with the intention of lynching him, he believed they would act fairly if given the facts. They took awhile to come around but eventually came to be ashamed of their treatment of him. He used his legal talents to change policy and to challenge institutionalized discrimination. He responded to all violence with careful strategy and legal acumen and by encouraging the oppressed to show up on their own behalf, as people with inherent worth and dignity. He called the lowest caste of Hindus, the untouchables, Haijan, or children of God.

So he resisted, he actively fought, he organized, he labored, he suffered greatly, he spent close to seven years in prison, he stood firm. He used his own body as a medium to communicate fierce non-compliance, fasting for long periods to bring attention to the plight of the oppressed.

He organized massive acts of non-cooperation among the Indian people -- huge campaigns calling on Indians to boycott British goods, to avoid British schools and other institutions, to wear only fabric woven by Indians rather than imported from England (and he only wore garments he wove himself) and he marched with hundreds of Indians 241 miles to the sea to make his own salt and thereby protest the British salt tax. We cannot call this passive or weak. And yet this philosophy that is so alien to us, this teaching that we should rather be killed than kill -- this is not our way. It rankles. Non-violence is all well and good as an ideal until someone firebombs your house or church or rounds up your people in cattle cars to exterminate them in distant camps. Gandhi was roundly criticized during World War II for what other international leaders regarded as excessive naiveté.

I tend to agree with that criticism. But that does not quench my deep admiration for and fascination with the principles of Satyagraha. What would our world look like if we truly used violence as a last resort but engaged the principles of satyagraha as our first response in all conflicts?

After spending a lot of time with Gandhi's words lately, I have begun to understand that being a Satyagrahi does not mean seeking death or welcoming it, it is a soul commitment to actively protect one's life force from being contaminated by hate. It is an internal transformation during which one learns, through serious and sustained discipline, to detach one's energy from violence, to refuse to participate in it even in the private recesses of one's own mind.

Satyagraha is an internal commitment above all. It is not a veneer that the justice-seeker puts on as one would a shirt, to achieve certain ends with a sense of moral superiority. There are many movements that suffer from this kind of superficiality, and we recognize those when we see them. Gandhi was very aware of the tendency we all have to adopt spiritual philosophies that sound good and give us righteous-sounding mottos, but that do not require any inner change: I imagine, for example, the peace activist who goes home and yells at her children, berates her husband, trashes all the people at the rally and complains about the food on the bus. We are all prone to this sort of division within ourselves, a division that Gandhi's philosophy takes very seriously and identifies as a serious impediment to the work of social change.

Gandhi asked those who would join the leadership of his movement to make changes in their lifestyles- to be vegetarian, to abstain from sex (passions of all kinds lead to violent emotions), to take prayer seriously, to not smoke or drink liquor, to clear the mind of cowardice, and to believe that the principles of satyagraha act in the society as leavening in bread -- invisible but crucial to its rising. He did not argue with Hindus who derided satyagraha as too Utopian but held to the belief that it was the key to right relations and love between people.

I wonder again what the world might look like if satyagraha was made global policy. Would the planet be swiftly de-populated and the violent reign alone until they eventually obliterated each other? Or would the shame that overcomes all of us when our conscience is provoked transform society and peace eventually prevail? Gandhi put all of his faith in God, whom he invoked by the name of Ram. For Gandhi, satyagraha was nothing less than the cosmic will, the desire of the gods for creation, and could not ultimately fail.

I don't expect any of us to embrace the ascetic lifestyle of the satyagrahi. This isn't a sermon that ends with a call to be like Gandhi. It ends with an observation that if our hearts harbor violence in them, it is because our culture is extremely violent. Violence is part of our everyday lives: let's do a quick audit. On the news every day and night. In the form of entertainment. In the way we speak to others or think about them. In our fantasies. In our daily commute, am I right? We have largely become desensitized to violence unless we are victims of it (and if you are, and suffering alone with that pain, I hope you will let me or some other trusted person know, and get the support and help you deserve). Because this is true, and because we are people who seek to bring forth goodness and wholeness in what we do, it benefits us to take up spiritual disciplines and interior practices that help us confront and purge violence from our own hearts. If we do not do it, we are also enslaved and cannot help free anyone else.

I will close with one of his most famous quotes, spoken to his grandson. Gandhi said that "The seven blunders that human society commits and cause all the violence: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principles."

He was assassinated on January 30, 1948. But today we celebrate his life. He lays down a profound challenge to us. Namaste, Mahatma.