The work of love, or how to resist in the dark ages
|The inscription in the Cambridge Unitarian Church’s Memorial Garden|
Picking up on something I noted two weeks ago, last week I wrote a short thought for the day for you about Jesus’ commandment “to love one another” (John 13:34) and why, when it is understood in a certain way, I think it can be called a “new commandment.” I also noted that the new commandment to love one another seems central to any religion worth its salt and it has always seemed to me that this commandment alone, this alone, if it is done, is sufficient, quite sufficient.
Because this commandment is sufficient, quite sufficient — if it is done — then, in my book anyway, every non-Christian religion, and every secular, non-religious philosophy which, or person who, also preaches the same commandment, is fine by me.
One secular, non-religious figure who has had a major influence on my own thinking about the commandment to love one another is the veteran American historian and political activist, Mike Davis (b. 1946), best known here in the UK thanks to his writing for the New Left Review.
Sadly, this summer we learnt he had stopped his treatment for terminal oesophageal cancer and had begun palliative care. He has, perhaps, six to nine months to live. (Personally, I send love and best wishes to him.) Given this, when, last month, I saw an interview with him in the Guardian newspaper, I wanted to see what final thoughts he wished to pass on to us.
The part of the interview that struck me most powerfully followed this question by the piece’s author, Lois Beckett:
You’ve been organizing for social change your whole life. How do you deal with a future that feels so bleak?
Davis replied as follows:
For someone my age who was in the civil rights movement, and in other struggles of the 1960s, I’ve seen miracles happen. I’ve seen ordinary people do the most heroic things. When you’ve had the privilege of knowing so many great fighters and resisters, you can’t lay down the sword, even if things seem objectively hopeless.
I’ve always been influenced by the poems Brecht wrote in the late 30s, during the Second World War, after everything had been incinerated, all the dreams and values of an entire generation destroyed, and Brecht said, well, it’s a new dark ages . . . how do people resist in the dark ages?
What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems. It’s what ordinary people have to do. You have to love each other. You have to defend each other. You have to fight.”
Before going on, lest you mishear what Mike Davis means when he talks about fighting, in this interview anyway, he makes it absolutely clear that he means:
“Organize as massively as possible: non-violent civil disobedience.”
Now, along with the interviewer, Lois Beckett, most of us are more and more regularly asking ourselves how on earth we are going to deal with a future that feels so bleak? And what I find deeply encouraging about Davis’ answer — uttered as it is from a secular, non-religious perspective — is that it is basically the same answer as that given by our own liberal Christian tradition’s founding figure, Jesus, in his new commandment to “love one another”, a commandment which, of course, has its roots deep in Jesus’ own Jewish faith. The connections here help illustrate the truth of our own church’s motto (see photo above) which says: “We need not think alike to love alike” and this is why Davis’ words, secular though they are, dovetail so seamlessly with the religious words of our weekly liturgy.
It’s important to remember that the word “liturgy” literally means “the work of the people” — deriving from “laos” meaning “people” and “ergon” meaning “work” — and a major element of our Sunday Service of Mindful of Meditation is the work of becoming ever better aware of, and better at paying attention to and become mindful of, the truth expressed by Davis that, what keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other. This is why we say together, week by week, that “Love is the doctrine of this church” and why we “give thanks for the mystery and miracle of love.” This is why we reaffirm our desire to become “the hands of holy creativity, love and justice” and why, along with the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, we evoke “the presence of the Great Compassion.” And this is why, along with the eighteenth century, Anglo-American Christian Universalist, George de Benneville, we remember that, taken together, all these things insist that we “Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.”
Just like the Tai Chi practitioner who practises their basic moves day by day, week by week in order to get them deep into their body so that when moments for action present themselves they are instantly ready and able to defend themselves and others from violence, we come together each week to get the movements of love deep into our heads, hearts and hands so we are instantly ready and able, always non-violently, to defend ourselves and others from the violence that is daily being inflicted upon ordinary people everywhere by the neoliberal free-market ideologues, xenophobic nationalist leaders, gilded oligarchs, billionaire sheikhs and silicon deities who are the major bringers of darkness to our own times.
Yes, ours is a dark and darkening age, things are bleak, and we need fearlessly to acknowledge this because where everything is bad it must be good to know the worst, and where all is rotten it is our work to cry stinking fish (cf. F. H. Bradley, Preface to “Appearance and Reality”, 1893). But, despite this, Davis is right, what will keep us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and that is why we in this church reaffirm each week that all is never lost to anyone who lives in the presence of the Great Compassion and is, therefore, able to hear and fulfil Jesus’ ever new commandment to love one another.
Let those with ears hear; those with eyes see.