When comic Stephen Colbert was playing the role of a conservative news commentator he went on a rant about Sensitive New Age Dads. He said, “That’s not the way a father should be. A father should be distant, remote and impossible to please otherwise how will kids ever understand the concept of God.”
While my father came of age before there were Sensitive New Age Dads he was definitely taking steps in that direction. My father was the minister of the Saint Francis Episcopal Church in Macon, Georgia, and one of the enduring lessons I learned from him was the prayer of Saint Francis, which he read at my ordination. You may be familiar with it,
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
This morning I want to use that last line as our thought for the day and expand upon it by making it a group prayer, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”
Now finish the sentence for me, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”
When I began planning for this service I had no idea how much sadness would be in the air this morning. This week we’ve heard the Bible quoted to justify the forcible separation of children from their mother’s and father’s, lactating babies separated from breastfeeding mothers. This week we’ve learned about “A migrant father separated from his wife and child at the US-Mexico border (who) had a breakdown at a Texas jail and took his own life.”
Fortunately many religious leaders have spoken out for these children including the one who posted, “People who tore children from their parents in the Bible 1) Pharaoh, 2) Herod, 3) Pontius Pilate. So separating children from their parents is biblical. But (I’m) not sure you want to be counted in that crowd.”
There has been other sad news this week. This week the newsfeed has been filled with images of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain a reminder of how the wealthy, the famous and the otherwise successful are not immune from sadness, depression and despair.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote that most people live lives of quiet desperation. Of course, sometimes that desperation is not so quiet. Sometimes that desperation is closer to the surface where we can see it.
All of this makes it important that we dedicate ourselves to the spirit of that prayer and say, “Where there is sadness… may we bring joy.”
Not everyone associates religion with joy. I remember when I was in seminary I once watched a video where a very dour faced minister spoke to the camera in a dull monotone, “We ministers…must be very careful…not to abuse…our charisma.”
I think many of us have had encounters with such ministers. I remember once listening to a minister and thinking to myself, “Surely there is a difference between spirituality and clinical depression.” Surely spirituality most be more than all the forces that bear down on us to make us dull and dour and deadened.
In April 1966 Time magazine ran a cover with headline, “Is God dead?” The humanist psychologist Erich Fromm reframed that question by saying, “The most important question is not ‘Is God dead?’ The most important question is ‘Are we dead?” Are we dead on the inside? Have we lost the link to the source of life, the source of vitality, the source of energy and aliveness.
Dag Hammarskjold once wrote, “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
This radiance is not always felt most profoundly during a sermon. It is not always felt most profoundly in a church service. Sometimes this radiance is felt most powerfully on the dance floor. Sometimes this radiance is most present when we move our bodies and stop being so stuck in our heads.
In this way music and dance are revolutionary. And for this reason music and dance can be perceived to be a threat to the powers that be.
For instance in the 1940’s swing dancing was denounced by the Nazis and banned from many parts of Germany and the occupied territories. In the minds of the authorities swing music was seen as anti-fascist activism and a threat to the totalitarian state.
Swing dancing was denounced as alien not only because it was done to American music but because of the roots of the music in African American culture and because many of the musicians who played swing music at the time were Jewish. Posters denouncing swing dancing were unambiguously racist in tone and content with gross caricatures and derogatory language.
Swing music was condemned as degenerate leading to moral depravity and sexual licentiousness. The Nazis sent spies to swing dances who took notes on what they saw there. Most swing dancers at the time were teenagers. It was a very young movement. By most accounts the behavior of these dancers was no more shocking than the behavior of teenagers at any other era of history – but- to authoritarian governments and religions the behavior of teenagers is always shocking. As the philosopher La Rochefoucauld once observed, “Elders love to condemn the young for the sins they no longer have the energy to commit themselves.”
In a parallel to the 1960’s generation gap the swing dancers were criticized because the men had long hair (to they eyes) and the women had short skirts (slightly above the knee.) One of the things that the Nazis found particularly shocking is that at some of the swing dances there was gender non-conformity, a man might dance with man or a woman with a woman and to their mind this was verboten.
While these teenagers were not always overtly political swing dance was a counter cultural movement that contrasted dramatically with the militaristic culture of the Hitler youth. Indeed the dancers were call The Swing Youth in contrast to the Hitler Youth. The goal of the Nazis was to militarize the young. They wanted marches not dances, regulation haircuts and uniforms not free expression.
For this reason swing dancers were denounced, harassed, bullied, arrested, imprisoned and sometimes sent to concentration camps. Police raids could lead to up to 300 arrests. It is fair to say that some young people died in Nazi concentration camps simply because they loved to dance.
The Nazi persecution of swing dancing may seem like a huge overreaction by a paranoid government and it was that -but – we must also remember that in Plato’s Republic the sage philosopher says that you must be very careful about the music that is popular among the young because music has the power to bring down governments.
One commentator from 1940’s Germany said that to the young, “swing was freedom…freedom without limits.” In this way swing is the opposite of every form of totalitarianism, religious or political. Authoritarian religion and politics seems to thrive on a grim outlook on life. Authoritarianism seems to feed on fear and anxiety and anger and outrage whereas swing dancing is grounded in joy.
My friend Roy Reynolds is a Unitarian Universalist minister and an avid swing dancer. He is also a philosopher and a theologian so it will surprise no one that he waxes philosophical about swing dancing. He is working on a book he calls The Four Faces of God and one chapter in that book is called The Dance.
If I were to paraphrase Roy I might say, “Dance is the whole enchilada.” Swing dance is eros, philia, agape, grace and the beloved community wrapped up into one. Swing is body, mind and spirit. It’s the theology of embodiment. It is about being awake. It is about being alive. It is about being attentive. It is about being aware of the totality of experience.
I would also add that to dance is about being in the present moment. In order to dance we must let go of our regrets about the past or our anxieties about the future and be present in this present moment.
I am reminded of a story told by Joseph Campbell about an anthropologist who was interviewing people of the Shinto religion who one day said to a Shinto priest, “You know, I have now been to a number of these Shinto shrines and I have seen quite a few rites, and I have read about it, thought about it; but you know, I don’t get the ideology. I don’t get your theology.” And the Shinto priest said, “We do not have ideology. We do not have theology. We dance.”
And so do we. And as we dance we can pray, “Where there is sadness…may we bring joy!”
Dance is the opposite of oppression. Dance is the opposite of depression. Dance is freedom! For instance today the opposite of an anti-immigration rally might be the Fiesta Latina, an event full of music and dancing.
This coming Saturday is the Pride parade and if it is like most years there will be dancing in the streets. However, I also saw this week in the news that there is a white nationalist group that plans to protest the Pride parade. So the ideology and the world-view and the hatred of the Nazis is still with us. Even so here’s what I predict. I predict that next Saturday that the white nationalists will be vastly outnumbered and more importantly vastly out-joyed.
Authoritarian leaders are always afraid of joy, afraid of dance, afraid of celebration, because dancing might just bring down the government. Authoritarians prefer a government that is distant, remote and impossible to please. Authoritarianism feeds on our fear and our anger and our anxiety and our despair –and- in the midst of all these emotions which are very present in our culture today we can dance a revolutionary dance illumined by that steady radiance the source of which is beyond all reason and say a revolutionary prayer.
“Where there is sadness….may we bring joy.”
(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday June 17, 2018)