Wake, Now, My Conscience: Rebellion, Revolution

and the Vulnerability of Democracy 

Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains

A sermon delivered September 23, 2018


What Do We Want?

[holding up a blank protest sign]

What do we want?!!

…well, we didn’t talk about or agree upon a focus for that chant. But whatever it is…

When do we want it?!!  [Now!

At a demonstration not long ago, Carol Kuczora explained that years ago she found a big, blank, white vinyl banner here at UUCM. She would cut out paper letters for an event and rubber cement the letters to the banner – keeping it at the ready. Carol knew that there would always be more events and rallies and marches, and that the issues would keep changing. What a great idea. I love the pragmatism of it.

[turn sign around to see printed on the other side, “Your Issue Here!”]

Let’s try this. Let’s start with the social justice issue that you yourself are caring about most strongly these days. The cause that matters most to you.

Take a moment…….. Got yours in mind? What is it that you want? Ready?

 [3x, stronger each time]

What do YOU want?!

When do YOU want it?!


We’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

Clearly, you believe in a better way.

Last fall and winter this congregation worked to articulate its mission. This year, as I see it, vision is not only the theme of this month, vision is the theme of the entire year – throughout the year, this congregation imagining the most compelling vision of itself living its mission and imagining how to get there from here.

Today my goal is to speak to the relationships between compassion (last week’s focus), and social justice, which so many of you name as important to you. As with all the services this month, this too is a service of seed planting, simply a start, offering what I hope will be useful concepts or frameworks for our continuing, shared exploration.

Compassion to Justice

So to trace the thread from compassion to justice…

I shared last Sunday my belief that cultivating compassion is the central task of religious community, the source from which all else flows, and that while compassion begins with loving kindness, compassion moves beyond loving-kindness to notice and to care about the well-being and the suffering of others until that care becomes a desire to help free others from their suffering.

Dr Joan Halifax teaches, from her engaged Buddhist perspective, that there are two sides to the river of compassion: Service and Social Transformation.

Service is about those direct efforts to relieve the suffering of a certain person or persons –  assisting an undocumented immigrant, volunteering at a domestic violence shelter, serving meals at Hospitality House, comforting a friend, for example.

Social Transformation is about changing the systemic and social realities that cause people to suffer unnecessarily in the first place, and about the systemic and social realities that enable and amplify that suffering – changing laws or defying laws, policies, influencing the behaviors of public officials and the climate of public rhetoric, for example.

Halifax teaches that on both sides of the river – the Service side and the Social Transformation side – there are four dimensions of compassion that must be cultivated:

  • Our capacity to attend to the experience of others – to be deeply present to others, laser focused while remaining non-judgmental and unperturbed, like a deep, still pond…fully present, completely focused, and internally calm and non-judgmental, so that we can really see and hear and take in the experience of others.
  • Our capacity to feel concern for others, to care – healthy empathy that allows us to resonate with someone else’s suffering without getting lost or trapped in that suffering ourselves.
  • Our Capacity to sense what will truly serve others – Not starting with what I would want done unto me, but rather sensing what will genuinely serve those for whom I am feeling empathy.
  • Drawing on all of that, finally, our capacity to Be of Service – to do what we believe will be helpful, remembering that sometimes we can be of greatest service by doing nothing.

Building capacity and skillfulness in all four of these dimensions of compassion is our ongoing study.

(Name upcoming Adult RE offerings and the dimensions of compassion that each addresses).

Cultivating Compassion via these four  dimensions is about waking our conscience. Applying it at social, public, institutional, systemic levels is the work of justice making. Justice is about attending to the experience of others, feeling concern for them, sensing what will really serve to reduce or relieve their suffering, and then being of genuine service, in public arenas.

“Justice is what love looks like in public.” – Cornell West.

Or as we might say, justice is what true, healthy, courageous compassion looks like in public.

What Moves You?

I want to come back to your causes…the ones you thought about and called out earlier.

I was going to ask members of the Social Justice team to name the causes about which they are particularly passionate right now, but the job of the Social Justice Team is not to do social justice work on behalf of the congregation. The job of the Social Justice Team is to help the members and friends of this congregation to do the work of justice in the community: to encourage, support, connect people to opportunities to do the work of justice.

So, let’s begin with you.

Drawing on your own compassion, who do you notice is suffering? From where are you hearing the cries of the world in ways that you feel, that move you so strongly that you desire to do something to relieve that suffering? (It may be what you called out earlier…or not.)

[Walk down rows as people call out the suffering that tugs at them.]


The Social Justice Team has been asking itself – How can we not only support all these individual calls toward compassion and justice, how can we gather our energies together into some critical mass and focus that energy where it might have a chance of effecting a real change, making a meaningful difference, really relieving suffering? Not all suffering, but someone’s suffering – and not only through service, but through social transformation as well.

At the end of the sermon, Stu will share with you a tool that the Social Justice Team hopes will help more of you to do together the justice work that matters to you.

As the year goes on, as we continue to envision, we’ll be looking at how to keep collecting and focusing the separate “I” energies more and more toward a powerful congregation-wide “WE” energy, focusing our collective compassion and desire for justice toward relieving real suffering in our town, in our area.


Rebellion and Resistance

Again, hoping to plant some seeds that we can water and tend, I want to offer a few more insights from Michael Hogue in his book, American Immanence.

As we think about how to go about the work of justice making in social arenas, the insight of Grace Lee Boggs may be helpful. Boggs was a Chinese American philosopher and activist who wrote of the difference between rebellion and revolution.

Boggs writes that rebellion “represents the massive uprisings and protests of the oppressed” [that] “[throw] into question the legitimacy and supposed permanence of existing institutions.”

Hogue picks up the thread, writing that “Rebellion is a …cathartic, …catalytic collective decision to resist the way things are.  [Rebellion decisively interrupts] the status quo and [so instigates] a crisis [cracks open a gap, creating] the opportunity for [something new to happen], a space for systemic change.

As such, rebellion is critical.

“However,” he points out, “a rebellion is not a revolution.”

As Boggs put it, “a revolution requires that people go beyond struggling against oppressive institutions. A revolution involves making an evolutionary/revolutionary leap toward becoming more socially responsible [more compassionate!] and more self-critical human beings. In order to transform the world we must transform ourselves. …Unlike rebellions which are here today and gone tomorrow [to which/as so many of our placards and t-shirts attest], revolutions require a patient and [extended] process that transforms and empowers us as individuals as we struggle to change the world around us.”

Rebellion is about resistance, says Hogue. Revolution is about resilience.

Rebellion and resistance are critically important, but not enough by themselves. By disrupting, they can open a window, but revolution must move in through that window to carry us forward.

Grace Lee Boggs points the way. She wrote that “when it comes to revolution, [when we go through that window] ‘We have to shift what unifies [us] from rejection to projection, from just denunciation to annunciation.’ [from what we are against, to what we’re for.]

Again, Michael Hogue frames it for us:

“While rebellion entails [merely] a critique of the way things are, revolution seeks to turn things around. Where rebellion is about resisting what is and [what] has been, revolution is about realizing what could and should be. And realizing the world that could and should be requires that it be deeply and vividly imagined.”

And so, imagining deeply and vividly the world that could and should be is our visioning work, even while we run to the front lines, as needed, to resist and rebel to stem the worst dangers and to create spaces for a foothold.

The thing is, the work to envision what we are for, not just what we are against, is exactly what is needed on a broad scale, Hogue says, to protect and strengthen our democracy, which is, at this moment, in peril, and, as it always is, vulnerable. Democracy can be injured, can take ill, can be killed, he says. Democracy, Hogue says, relies on creating the most diverse solidarity of people possible, united across many kinds of difference by a powerful common purpose….a shared vision.

“If the rebellious energy of the [many arising] movements [around the nation and the globe] can coalesce around something beyond critique, if they can announce, amplify, and unite around a revolutionary common purpose, then a transformative restructuring of larger economic, social, and ecological systems may become possible.”

And, Boggs says, such “revolutions must begin from wherever we are. . . . Organic systemic change emerges from the bottom up and the middle out…” not from the top. It’s about living our values where we are, first of all.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles name that we are committed to affirming and promoting the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. This is not simply a statement about how we make decisions, it is a theological statement about the nature of existence, about what matters, and about what it means to be human. Power, it says, is not located in any single location. Power, ideally, is disbursed broadly and equitably, shared by all.

Hogue says that justice is not a moral principle or a political ideal. It is not an abstract concept. Justice only exists as it is lived in our relationships and our communities, when “the power to act and decide, to be and to do and to know is shared rather than concentrated.”

And the capacity to share power that equitably can only exist, when the participants have a commitment to the common good, and willingness, in Mike’s words, to “empathically cross over to the experience of others.”

…which brings us back to cultivating compassion. The capacity to be present, to care, to discern what is needed, to be of service to relieve suffering.

All these are threads to pick up again, later.

What do you want?!

“We return today to remember that we become the vision we embrace.”

“May our time together,” not just today but every time two or more of us gather, “help us choose wisely and with courage.”

So may we be.


Halifax, Joan. TED Talk: “Compassion and the True Meaning of Empathy.” 2011


Halifax, Joan, and Rebecca Solnit. Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet. New York: Flatiron Books, 2018.

Hogue, Michael S. American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.