The reading comes from Marilyn Sewell’s essay on “Power” which is contained in The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality (which I edited.)
Some natives of Northern Rhodesia, using Gandhi’s teachings of nonviolent resistance as their guide to counter British imperialism in the mid-20th century, refused to cooperate with the colonial government. The British colonists, on the other hand, were wary of living in a country where their presence was not supported. After putting up with the resistance for several months, the British government sent a new, particularly tough administrator to the colony, a disciplined man who would surely bring these recalcitrant Africans in line. However, when the new administrator arrived at the Lusaka airport, a surprise awaited him. Julia Chikamonenga had organized a group of the biggest women she could find to welcome their new ruler. As he got off the plane, he saw before him a vast sea of naked Zambian women, singing songs of greeting. He turned tail and ordered the pilot to fly, posthaste, back to London.
This story… is about power and the misuse of power. Colonialism never has a moral grounding because it is exploitation based on military and economic superiority. But the story is about another kind of power—the power of people who just said no, who would not cooperate with their oppressors. And it is about using… ingenuity and humor—the informal power of the people—to turn the tables on the formal power of the colonizer.
[…] In and of itself, power is neither good nor evil: It is morally neutral. It can be used for nefarious ends or it can be used to heal and bring justice. The direction it takes depends on the spiritual maturity of the one who wields the power, and the purpose for which it is used.
The following is a true story told to me by a colleague of mine. In the town where she lives, the Fred Phelps clan arrived to protest something. I don’t remember what exactly: A church or a synagogue or a high school. But I do remember what my colleague said she did in response. According to her she put together all the accoutrements of a clown outfit: a multicolored frizzy wig, a bulbous red nose, pancake makeup, and mismatched pants and shirt. As a final touch she went to a storage closet in her church where she found a prosthetic rear end. I have no idea why a Unitarian Universalist church would keep a plastic fake derriere in its storage closet. I don’t really want to know.
My colleague arrived at the scene of the Phelps protest and acted like a clown. Standing on the opposite side of the street she spent the next hour goofily walking up and down the sidewalk carrying a sign that read, on one side, “God hates nags,” and, on the other, “God loves gags.” Cars driving by slowed down and honked. Passengers waved. People did U-turns to drive by a second time and a third. People parked their car, got out, and posed for pictures with the clown minister. There was applause, cheers, smiles, and hearty belly-laughs.
“With laughter drown the raucous shout.” Like the story about the Zambian women, my colleague’s story teaches us that there is an informal yet potent power in absurdity and spectacle. I am aware that explaining a joke is the best way to kill the force of its humor, but I do want to say just a few words about Marilyn Sewell’s story. Many of you laughed. Why did you laugh? The story has a slightly risqué quality to it. But the humor is found in the reaction of the tough administrator whose proper British “civility” is shaken by witnessing a sea of undulating flesh, National Geographic come to life before his eyes.
Colonialism, as Sewell reminds us, always involves the immoral exploitation of a land and its people. It involves the theft of wealth and domination by brute force and might rather than right. Colonialism also depends upon self-deception on the part of the colonizing forces, the misguided belief that occupation is in the best interest of the people they have colonized. It requires the arrogant illusion of one’s own superiority and benevolence. “I know what is best for you. I will help make you civilized.” The myth of colonialism also has to do with belief in intellectual superiority. “I am smarter than you. It is my duty to educate you.” And that is where the real humor lies in the story Marilyn Sewell relates. The colonial administrator gets outfoxed, outsmarted. The “savage” behavior on the part of the women that Julia Chikamonenga recruited is really anything but savage. It is deeply intelligent, incisive, creative, and organized. It is the behavior of the colonialists that is truly savage.
There is such a sweet spot in my heart for gags and pranks and practical jokes. I cannot help but tell another story. A few years before I moved to Portland, Oregon, there was a push to rename a road running alongside the riverfront and call it Martin Luther King Boulevard instead of Front Street. I think we can all agree that “Front Street” is a street name begging to be renamed. It isn’t as if the petitioners were attempting to diminish the family legacy of some Mr. and Mrs. Front. The City government balked and instead decided to rename a street running through the African-American part of town. Their ruling had all of the trappings of racism. In response, a group of pranksters with access to some sweet graphic design equipment printed up a bunch of alternate street signs. The signs were printed using a perfect white street-sign font and they were printed on perfect street-sign green reflective adhesive paper. Overnight the pranksters meticulously stickered every street sign on Front Street—as well as every highway exit sign—rechristening the street, Malcolm X Boulevard. I would say that our city’s newish “Power & Light District” could use a dose of that same spirit. [For those of you who do not live in the Kansas City metro region, P&L is an upscale dining and shopping area in downtown. It has been criticized for enforcing a dress code that gives security an excuse to turn away African Americans.]
“With laughter drown the raucous shout.” This line comes from one of the great hymns in our hymnal, “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door.” (Last month I preached on a line from another hymn.) “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door” is a hymn that is close to my heart. Growing up as a Unitarian Universalist in Wayland, Massachusetts, we would sing it every year on the first Sunday after Labor Day, at the beginning of the “church year.”
One of the great gifts of growing up in this faith, of growing up in this tradition, and going to church and Sunday school (almost) every Sunday is that there are all of these tunes and ideas and sayings and expressions that become not only a part of the conscious expression of my faith, but live in my subconscious as well and pop up, becoming available in times of need.
For example, almost a decade ago there was a large gathering of Unitarian Universalists, and, in the midst of this crowded room, a gentleman suffered a sudden heart attack. Emergency services were immediately called. The paramedics arrived swiftly and skillfully administered life-saving medical attention. The man was rushed to a hospital and survived. All of the Unitarian Universalists gathered in the room were in shock. All of a sudden someone began to sing the hymn “Spirit of Life” and everyone instantly recalled the song from memory. Some knew all the words. Others just hummed the tune. It was sung with tears. It was a shared prayer and it provided healing comfort to all those who were present. I wish for you, as well as for your children, for this gift of strength and healing to be available to you. I wish for resources like that to seep deep into the marrow of your bones. That is part of what it means to connect on a common spiritual journey.
And, of course, sometimes these gifts of faith seep out at very unusual times. “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door” is a beautiful hymn, and for some reason for the longest time I found myself humming it whenever I walked around inside of a mall. I would be at the mall, and, all of a sudden, it would get stuck in my head. “May nothing da da da da this door. And may da da da never da.”
The first time I realized I was doing this I thought that maybe that they were playing a Muzak version of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal at the mall. They were not. Every time I went to this mall this hymn would get stuck in my head. At first I couldn’t even recall which song it was but I knew I had sung it in church. And then I sat down one day with the hymnal and realized which hymn I was singing. I carefully read the lyrics hoping for insight. And there, on the page, the connections all came together. The first store I saw when I entered the mall was a women’s clothing chain store called “Casual Corner.” The third verse of the hymn that got stuck in my head goes, “Peace shall walk softly through these rooms, touching our lips with holy wine, till every casual corner blooms into a shrine.” I don’t think that sanctifying the malls of America was what the author of this hymn had in mind.
The first hymn in our hymnal, “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door,” poses some theological questions for Unitarian Universalists. It is a hymn about safety, shelter, and refuge and uses metaphorical imagery of storms, thunder and lightning, and gale force winds. But does it actually suggest that our churches ought to be places where we shut ourselves off and turn away from the storms that blow in the world? I would answer that our proper response to tsunamis and earthquakes and typhoons is not to close ourselves off from the world. Rather, it is to do like what we did last Sunday, to send a bit of our tremendous generosity to places that have been battered by the storm.
And, while my own theology does not make claims about the existence of the personification of an evil force in the universe, I do believe that there are things in our world that can properly be called evil, things for which no other word but “evil” is appropriate. What exactly is our proper response to this? It is because of the interdependence of all things, because the world outside the walls of our church cannot be separated from the world within our walls, that passivity towards the larger world is not a moral option. The world inside becomes a microcosm of the world outside. And drowning the raucous shout with laughter does not mean ignoring hate while we seek our own amusements. It means using the power of creativity, the power of courage, the power of wisdom, the power of love, and, yes, sometimes even the power of laughter to drown the raucous shout.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s father is murdered and his murderer ascends to the throne. In a very uncomfortable scene, a theater troupe comes to the palace to entertain the royal family and puts on a play, a play about a murderer who ascends to the throne. This hits a raw point with the King who becomes quite uncomfortable. Hamlet soothes him, telling him, “No, no they do but jest.” The joke is on the King though and everybody knows it.
Humor has the power to be both sharp and gentle. A clown went to a demonstration, but everybody knew that the real clowns were standing on the other side of the street. The naked women of Northern Rhodesia sang songs of welcome, but everybody knew that it was the empire that wasn’t wearing any clothes. When confronted with hate, with raucous shouting, with spiteful ignorance, send in the clowns, I say. Send in the clowns.