Two years ago, a man travelled with his wife to Taiwan from Hong Kong where he killed her, stuffed her body in a suitcase, wheeled≥ her out of the hotel and dumped her in a nearby stream before heading home. Having been caught with human-sized luggage on hotel security cameras, the police in Taiwan requested the man be extradited from Hong Kong to stand trial. The authorities agreed and… massive protests erupted in the streets.
The people weren’t protecting the man. They were protecting the long-standing provision not to extradite the accused. China, which owns Hong Kong, has been secretly picking up citizens of Hong Kong and bringing them to Chinese prisons. The public acceptance of extradition would, they feared, open the flood gates allowing dictatorial China to sweep people up en masse for any number of minor infractions.
The protests started in June when 10% of the population marched to stop extradition and those protests haven’t stopped. Every weekend since then, people dress in black, heads and faces covered, and confront police in what has become a bloody cry for freedom.
Hong Kong isn’t the only place people are raising their voices in protest. In Santiago, Chile, an increase in transit fees added gas to what had been a smoldering ember of economic injustice that burst into violence with a million people taking to the streets. As the protests and violence continue, a state of emergency had to be declared for the country. With 19 dead so far and thousands arrested, all international conferences have been cancelled including the much anticipated United Nations Conference of Parties, the follow-up meeting to the Paris Summit on climate change.
Three weeks ago, a fire broke out in Lebanon burning through neighborhoods overnight while local government had very little infrastructure to fight it, despite the large sums that had been raised for just this purpose. The fires continued to burn over the next few days until help arrived from Jordan, Italy and Greece whose helicopters eventually contained the fires. A day later, a tax was announced on free internet phone calls and the fire reignited but this time in human anger as people poured into the streets of Beirut demanding the resignation of the entire government. People from every sect, traditionally pitted against one another, gathered together declaring themselves in allegiance not to traditional forms of division but to a new vision of unification among young people united in their call for economic justice and an end of corruption in government. With daily life still at a halt and millions of people on the streets, the Prime Minister has stepped down, but protests continue as citizens pour all they have into remaking a system that has left them poor and unprotected for too long.
I can go on. 1300 people were arrested in Russia this summer marching for democracy and an end of governmental corruption. People in Bolivia, Iraq and Ethiopia have taken to their streets with similar demands. October saw protests in Melbourne, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, New York, London, Wellington, Madrid and in the Amazon for environmental action and protection. Voices of dissent can be heard from every corner of the planet calling for an increase in citizen participation, an end of governmental corruption, economic equality, and a serious response climate change.
While these changes might feel positive, albeit periodically violent, there’s similar evidence of widespread unease and dissatisfaction coming from the far right. Nationalism is on the rise in Poland, the UK, the US, Italy, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, Japan and India. As people flee political and economic instability for nations deemed safer and traditionally more friendly, we’re seeing an anti-immigration backlash creating a different kind of crisis. With pressure from an increased population of people arriving with immediate needs for shelter, medical care and food, some nations are buckling under the pressure, eliminating compassion from their repertoires and shutting their borders. Even if they don’t take the radical steps the US has taken this fall of denying all refugees entry, those who are still offering help are seeing an increase in backlash from citizens concerned that there won’t be enough resources to share. This fear is spawning far-right expansions in democratic government and systematic reductions in services coupled with an increase in hate crimes and discrimination even toward citizens who don’t look or act or worship or dress like the majority. While people are fighting in some countries to dismantle unresponsive governments that have put the power and money in the hands of too few, in other countries we see a rise of fascism threatening the strongest democracies on the planet.
Is this just a momentary spasm of citizen engagement, a blip on the historical timelines soon to shift back to the status quo? Or are we, in fact, moving the human experiment forward in some significant way? And why now? What has sparked such passion around the world, such urgency that young people in particular would be willing to halt their daily lives and prioritize protest? At the same time, we have to ask: What’s sponsoring the rage and fury leading to a willingness to alter generations of international and cultural exchange, replacing it with homogeneity? A phenomenon that caused generations of suffering in the mid-20th century seemed unlikely to return, and yet it’s back in full force. Some countries are seeing massive calls for more expansive, inclusive government and others are witnessing their populations seeking to contract, to pull in and keep whatever we have to ourselves. Why?
I suspect there are two things happening simultaneously. The primary force behind the insurgence of fear and empowerment is a rapidly changing climate. A diminishment of resources and imminent threat to the platform of life is apparent in many parts of the world, altering people’s abilities to feed their families and live as they’d been accustomed for generations. Progress that had been made is sliding quickly backwards; we see girls in Ghana who had finally been allowed to attend school with the boys now denied an education because they are needed to help with the increasingly difficult task of finding water; we see fires in California, Australia, Lebanon, and Brazil that could have been put out easily, blazing for days or weeks on unusually dry land sponsored by corporate or governmental corruption; we see shortened growing seasons in Honduras pushing families to migrate north where they might be able to find food. As the planet changes, systems are challenged and progress abates, creating global social and governmental shifts.
Young people in particular are moved to action, hoping to clean up broken systems that they might be able to live a life something close to that of their parents. And they can, thanks to the second thing making this a moment of reckoning. The invention and accessibility of social media can quickly transform what might have been a peasants’ revolt of 100 people into a mass movement. The ability to reach thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people in a few days or even hours means that immediate responses from large forces are both possible and likely, especially when national and international conversations are happening around the clock on platforms hardly considered ten years ago.
With a rapidly changing planet, a population on the move, systems of government collapsing under the strain, an increase of fear and decrease of resources paired with the ability to organize quickly, we see massive social uprisings and movements around the globe, each of which might leave us feeling the destabilization of our institutions as the ground beneath our feet shifts.
UU minister Rev. Anna Blaedel wrote a poem to capture this moment. It’s called A Poem on Tending in the Midst of Destruction:
last night, before bed, my lover
told me i've started grinding my teeth
while i sleep, and all night i
dreamt my teeth were falling
out of my head, and at 3-something a.m. i awoke with a start
afraid to open my mouth.
last week, when the ceiling started falling
at work, my first thought was: "seems about right."
everything is falling apart.
there's a new word for existential despair
caused by climate change: solastalgia.
everything is falling apart, too fast and too soon.
[the poet] nayyirah waheed whispers into the whirlwind:
1. rub honey into the night's back.
2. make sure the moon is fed.
3. bathe the ocean.
4. warm sing the trees.
and who has time for these luxuries?
and who are we to think we can make it, without?
and today i will make giant pot after giant pot
of vegan soup to feed students through the coming weeks
of winter, because for now it still gets bone cold here.
and today i will take a walk under falling leaves
with my lover's hand tucked in mine
because the ceiling is falling
and the world is burning
and i awoke convinced that only a walk together outside
will save us from erasure.
and flint still doesn't have clean water.
and hundreds of children are still separated from their parents.
and a majority of white women still side with predatory misogyny and white supremacy.
and black people are still being executed by the state.
and trans people are still told we don't or shouldn't exist.
and clergy colleagues are still pretending that there's middle ground with bigotry and hatred, and hear this, revs: i don't need you to "listen to my story," i need you to resist, and share the risk, ok? value people over rules, justice over popularity, ok? because until you do the church you're trying to save isn't worth it, ok? and there are more urgent losses right now, and crises, ok? and the word ally is meaningless if you're not doing the work, ok?
and the only thing i know
is to tend to the small, the slow, the simple:
this head of garlic
this pungent ginger root
this pile of black beans
this butternut squash
tend tend tend tend tend
this afternoon's walk
this evening's work
this life, so gorgeous and holy and horrible, and over all too soon
To help us feel more grounded and to address the global upheaval, we have two institutions designed for just this purpose. The first is the United Nations. As the Second World War - the one that came after The War to End All Wars - came to an end, 51 nation states gathered in San Francisco with an agreement to work together for the general welfare of all people, seeking peace and security across international boundaries. Today, there are 193 nations, all of which have agreed to work together to promote human rights and universal peace.
A lot of good work is done at the UN, but the most important thing they do is create global norms, holding up economic justice, gender equity, sustainable development and peacemaking as necessary, desirable and achievable goals. Serving as a beacon for every nation, the United Nations defines the standards for each state and serves as a mirror for self-evaluation. The UN is positioned to be mediators both between nations and within nations struggling to become their best selves. It’s because of the ideals negotiated at the UN over the course of these many decades that the people of Hong Kong know they have the right not be convicted without a fair trail or that the people of Guatemala know that freedom to migrate is a human right. And when children in Kashmir walk the streets early in the morning to check if their schools are open yet or if their newly occupied towns continue to keep them from getting an education, they also know- or at least their parents know – that the world is watching and they are not alone. As the ground shifts and ceilings crumble, the UN stands strong.
There’s a second institution that will be our salvation in an unstable political climate. Friendship. Intentional Community.
In the spring of 2017 when white supremacy was on the rise in full regalia and it was becoming clear that our institutions were beginning to fray, a friend invited a group of us to dinner to talk about how afraid she was. Another, the child of Holocaust survivors, was all too clear that the familiar pattern of claustrophobic Fascism had begun. As we lamented, we also devised a plan. We would stick together. Our safety net would be each other, no matter what that meant. To ensure the connection, the 12 of us have been intentional about getting together every 6 -8 weeks since then. We cook for each other and celebrate birthdays and holidays and are strengthening this sangha so we know it’s there if we need it. These aren’t necessarily my closest friends, but that isn’t the point. The point is that when economic and political institutions break down, we can create smaller circles of love that will carry us through.
Democracy is under attack in this country and around the world and hate, isolation and profit for the rich are the only policy platforms gaining traction here at home. We don’t know what’s next. We don’t know whose rights are next to be laid on the chopping block or how the Constitution might be violated or how long it will be before our own people are marching in the streets. But we know that what will save us is each other. We- those of us in this room – we don’t have to go through this alone. We have community and that’s more than most.
But, that community doesn’t happen just because we’re here. We have to be serious about it. We have to want to be connected, want to be a safety net for all who walk in. We have to be kind to each other, be able to see and hear each other. We need to make room for soul searching and healing. We need to know sometimes we’ll be the one who’s wrong and sometimes we’ll be the one who’s right and we shouldn’t let that define us either way. We need to find joy here and help others do the same. And we need to pitch in, each offering to do what we can to keep this community alive and healthy and safe.